A Pedestrian Accident Summary
by Robert Coover

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A Pedestrian Accident Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

A postmodern story in the absurdist tradition, “A Pedestrian Accident” recounts a nonsensical story about a man who has been run over by a six-wheel truck. After the accident, the man, Paul, remains conscious and is aware of what is going on around him within his range of vision. Even after the truck backs over him again and then pulls forward so that his body is mangled and torn, Paul remains conscious. Alternative explanations are that he is dead, but still able to observe real events taking place around him; that he is not dead but fantasizing; or that he is dead and removed to another level of reality just as “real” as the experiential world, but different from it. In postmodernist fiction, it is not necessary that choices be made. A reader simply accepts the absurd situation as it is given in a hypothetical world whose dimensions are different from those of the real world. Whatever the dimensions of an author’s “made” world, one is dealing with storified experience, in fact not any different from all other “stories” that have been created by storytellers from prehistoric times to the present. Thus, a story written in this mode has the same kind of validity as stories written or told long ago that have passed into history as myths, legends, or reputedly factual accounts. A story is a created experience, whether it is about the girl next door who had a date with the football hero or about Cinderella and her Prince Charming. Consequently, a story about a man who should be dead witnessing an absurd burlesque being acted out before him can have as much meaning as a biblical account of miracles accomplished, for example, by Paul, Jesus’s apostle.

The events that take place around the Paul of “A Pedestrian Accident” seem to be parts of a burlesque, a vaudeville show, or a Punch and Judy puppet show. The truck driver, with his rolling body and his little hands flying wildly about, thrusts himself in and out of the cab window as if he is being controlled by the strings of a puppeteer. The driver’s words, which become a refrain repeated throughout the story with only slight variations, begin in such a way as to underline the theatrical aspects of his role: “Listen lays and gentmens I’m a good Christian by Judy a decent hardwork in fambly man.” The police officer, with the tiny mustache and the notebook, who is constantly fingering his epaulets and acting in the name of the law, seems a straight man to Charity Grundy’s comic act as she struts, postures, and grimaces across the stage of Paul’s vision.

The woman and the police officer take part in a comic dialogue whose purpose is to explain who Paul is. Charity, a seventy-year-old woman with a pasty face, thick rouge, and a head covered with ringlets of sparse orange hair, identifies Paul as Amory Westerman, her lover, who came to her door carrying a heavy sea chest and whom she had desired only to mother, though circumstances got out of hand. As she recites her story, Charity dances about and plays to the crowd, and they begin to toss pennies to her in appreciation for the excellence of her act.

When the doctor arrives center stage, Mrs. Grundy retires to the rear, where later Paul will observe her setting up a ticket booth and charging admission to the play being enacted. The appearance of the doctor causes the police officer to breathe a sigh of relief because his authority is being superseded by that of the doctor, but Paul becomes even more terrified and believes that with the appearance of the doctor he is in real trouble. The doctor makes a routine examination of a man who is lying half-buried under a truck. Because the doctor will not allow Paul to be moved because he may have a broken neck, the police officer and truck driver can think of nothing to do but to pull the truck off Paul, which means running over him again. The truck driver misunderstands the officer and begins to go backward over the body before he is told to move forward. This moving of the truck at the direction of the doctor results in Paul’s being run over again and again.

When the doctor determines that he cannot help Paul, he lectures Paul on the meaning of life and death and orders the police officer to send for a priest. Paul’s eyes close, and when he awakes the streets are empty except for an old man who looks like the priest he had expected. Before long, however, Paul realizes that the man is not a priest but a beggar, and he is waiting for Paul to die so that he can appropriate Paul’s torn clothes.

At the end of the story, a small dog has arrived and apparently recognized that Paul’s body can provide food. Rain begins to fall and Paul hears the sound of other approaching dogs.