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...

(The entire section is 1266 words.)