The Stories

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Let the Dead Bury Their Dead is a series of loosely related short stories all set in Tims Creek, North Carolina, the fictional predominantly black rural town Randall Kenan first explored in his novel A Visitation of Spirits (1989). Besides being linked by a setting, the characters in these stories are also linked by a vague search for meaning, particularly in spiritual beliefs and, not infrequently, in sexual desire. Because many of these characters have lived lives that have forced them to suppress any personal search for spiritual or sexual understanding or fulfillment, they are often surprised to the point of near total disorientation when they find themselves forced to attain some new level of understanding in either realm.

The short stories in this volume are perfectly comfortable with what has often been called magical realism. There are important apparently supernatural elements in these stories, but the stories themselves do not give themselves over to the realm of fantasy. Although the magical elements are always meaningful and sometimes astonishing, the meaning of them is by no means always clear, certainly not to the characters in the stories. Furthermore, sexual desire is presented as an element that is in almost every way magical. It too is meaningful, and it can be spiritually redemptive, but it also can be lost or misinterpreted easily.

The lead story, “Clarence and the Dead,” one of the most refreshingly original stories in the collection as well as one of the best, shows how surprising the link between the spiritual and the sexual realms can be. Clarence Pickett is a preschoolage boy who suddenly gains the ability to serve as a medium for the dead residents of the community in speaking to their living loved ones. The town responds by ostracizing Clarence, especially as his spirit talk is increasingly shown to be reliable. Ellsworth Batts, however, a man who has never recovered from his wife’s death years earlier in a fire, sees the possibility of redemption when Clarence begins talking in the voice of Ellsworth’s dead wife, Mildred. He forms an attachment to Clarence that quickly becomes viewed by the town as an “unnatural affection” between a man and a boy, especially when he begins to apparently court Clarence and later tries to sneak into Clarence’s room at night. Ellsworth dies when the town, revolted by his behavior, tries to run him out of town, and Clarence dies shortly thereafter. “Clarence and the Dead” serves as a wonderful introductory story to this volume not only because it introduces many of the main themes but also because it demonstrates the connection between sexual desire and spiritual fulfillment as sometimes necessary but ambiguous and possibly dangerous as well.

Sexual desires that are socially forbidden or at least problematic play a key role in a number of the stories. “Cornsilk” focuses on a young man remembering an incestuous affair he had with his stepsister. “The Strange and Tragic Ballad of Mabel Pearsall” tells of a schoolteacher who becomes obsessed with the idea that her...

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Let the Dead Bury Their Dead

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In Let the Dead Bury Their Dead, Randall Kenan returns to Tims Creek, North Carolina, the imaginary small, mostly poor, and mostly black town he first visited in his novel A Visitation of Spirits (1989). The new stories explore the sometimes disturbing and sometimes enchanting strangeness of life, even life that appears ordinary. The stories in this collection are thoughtful and passionate, and the collection as a whole is fiercely successful.

Kenan is an explicitly intellectual and at times self- consciously literary writer. Such trademarks do not always enhance good storytelling, but in Kenan’s stories they do. His short stories embed themselves knowingly and successfully in a number of crisscrossing literary traditions. In a quote on the back dust jacket, novelist Terry McMillan identifies Kenan as “our ‘black’ Márquez.” Even a cursory glance at Kenan’s stories—of the folk history of a town, of the workings of strange, sometimes fabulous forces within people’s lives, and of the extraordinary passions of ordinary people—reveals Kenan’s similarity to Gabriel García Márquez, as well as to Toni Morrison and Charles Johnson, African American writers who also have been compared to Márquez. Similarly, the loosely linked short stories that tell of the unspoken passions of people in a small town may remind readers of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio: A Group of Tales of Ohio Small Town Life (1919), part one of Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923) (though Kenan’s stories are much fuller), or Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896). With his focus on the bizarre in a small southern town, comparisons of Kenan to Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner are almost inevitable.

All of this may seem to be cumbersome baggage to bring to the writing of short stories. Kenan, however, can handle his art with ease and aplomb, as he demonstrates clearly in the first short story in the collection, “Clarence and the Dead.” In this story, the narrator, speaking as the first-person plural voice of the town’s memory, tells the story of Clarence Pickett, who at three years of age began to pass on advice from dead members of the town to living members, usually concerning people and details the young boy could have no way of knowing. The first paragraph of the story tells us that Wilma Jones’s hog, Francis, began to talk (according to his owner) at about the same time Clarence was born and stopped talking at about the same time Clarence died at the age of five. The rest of the story dips into the well of the town’s collective memory to recall things Clarence said and what people said about Clarence to one another, but especially about the “unnatural” attachment Ellsworth Bates began to have toward Clarence when Clarence started relaying messages from Ellsworth’s dead wife, Mildred. Kenan is careful to use statements such as “folks said at the time” to suggest the possibility that this story has grown over the years since Clarence’s death, even while making it clear that the narrator believes that he knows the unvarnished truth. Thus, this story introduces two of Kenan’s favorite topics in this collection: illicit desire, especially homosexuality between men, and the histories, both personal and public, that grow around the unexplained, especially around unexplained desires. More important, it does so with a charm and a clarity of voice that make it irresistible.

Not all the stories in Let the Dead Bury Their Dead succeed quite so remarkably as “Clarence and the Dead,” but each has its own highlights. “Things of This World; or Angels Unawares” continues the supernatural motif of the first story to tell of John Edgar Stokes’s encounter with his chi—a term that African novelist Chinua Achebe defines in the novel Things Fall Apart (1958) as “a personal god,” and which has some of the same connotations as “fate”—in the form of a Chinese- looking man named Chi who seems to have fallen out of the sky.

“The Foundations of the Earth,” on the other hand, backs away from explicitly supernatural events to consider the result of a belief in a supernatural God on everyday life. Maggie Williams has invited Gabriel, the white, male lover of her dead grandson, Edward, to Tims Creek for a conciliatory visit. As she comes to terms with her dead grandson’s homosexuality, she also rethinks her understanding of God’s love for humankind, coming to the conclusion that it may be broader than she previously had thought. In this piece, Kenan lays aside some of the irresistible forward thrust that marks many of his stories to create a more contemplative mood. The story is most notable for its sharp characterizations of Maggie, Gabriel, and Edward.

“Cornsilk,” “What Are Days?,” and “Ragnarök! The Day the Gods Die” all focus on sexual relations that could be called socially scandalous. “Cornsilk” is written in a series of numbered epigrams that takes us inside the mind of Aaron Streeter. The fact that his father, the only doctor in Tims Creek, and his grandfather both were called Dr. Streeter may remind some readers of “Doctor Street” from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon (1977), named after the only black doctor in town. The comparison is appropriate: like Macon “Milkman” Dead, the grandson of the doctor in that novel, Aaron Streeter had an incestuous affair, with his half-sister Jamonica, who was raised by their grandfather in Harlem. Also like Milkman Dead, he is a self-absorbed young man with much growing to do. “What Are Days?” tells the story of a middle-aged widow, Lena Walker, who has a brief, passionate affair with a teenager called “Shang” who suddenly disappears. The hangover from the affair forces her to encounter both her anger and her grief over her late husband. In an ending that is both touching and...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Johnson, Charles. Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990. A major statement on black writing by a writer whose influence on Kenan is noticeable. Of particular importance to a reader of Kenan are Johnson’s comments on Jean Toomer and Henry Dumas.

Miner, Valerie. “Carolina Dreamin’.” The Nation 255 (July 6, 1992): 28-29. A review by a female novelist of Let the Dead Bury Their Dead. Focuses largely on Kenan’s treatment of women and finds much to praise.

Morrison, Toni. “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation.” In Black Women Writers, 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1983.

Morrison, Toni. “Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature.” Michigan Quarterly Review 28 (Winter, 1989): 1-34. Though not about Randall Kenan, these two articles by Toni Morrison do give a good overview of recurring themes and values in African American literature. The importance of the community and of ancestor figures in African American literature are particularly relevant to Randall Kenan.

Mosher, Howard Frank. “The Ghosts on Main Street.” The New York Times Book Review 97 (June 14, 1992): 12-13. An early but quite enlightening and very favorable review of Let the Dead Bury Their Dead.