Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby

by Donald Barthelme
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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 450

"Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby" is a short piece of fiction (first published in 1972) by postmodern short story writer and novelist Donald Barthelme. The title is the first line of the piece, narrated by a nameless figure who, along with a group of friends, have agreed that Colby should be hanged for "the way he had been behaving." The reader never knows what this behavior was, and sees only glimpses of the thinly-drawn characters. The characters—including Colby and the nameless narrator—speak matter-of-factly about plans for the hanging, addressing themselves to various practical topics in close succession.

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First, they discuss music, and Colby proposes Ives's Fourth Symphony. Howard calls this a "delaying tactic" on Colby's part, as it would take weeks to rehearse. Colby is encouraged to pick something else.

Hugh suggests wording the invitations ambiguously, as the group of friends does not want to attract the attention of the authorities, who would surely interrupt the event on legal grounds (despite the fact that these men are convinced of the moral justification for the hanging). Another man, Magnus, agrees to seeing the invitations printed (on nice paper) with sufficiently vague wording. Colby proposes that drinks be served, though he is worried about the expense. His friends assure him that there will be drinks of which Colby can partake.

The guests next discuss the gibbet (or gallows) to be used. One member of the group, Tomas, is an architect and estimates about $400 for the expense. He, Victor, and Howard discuss the relative merits of pine, walnut, and stained wood. The narrator suggests using a tree, as it would be more natural and less expensive.

Harry, owner of a car and truck rental service, explains that he has ten limousines, but more will be required, as well as a tent. The narrator explains that Colby makes a small protest at this point, proposing that everyone "goes too far" sometimes. He is quickly silenced by his resolute friends, who ask him whether he would prefer a gibbet or a tree.

Finally, Paul proposes bringing in a professional hangman from overseas, but the forward-thinking Tomas proposes that a rubber wall would do the job, as it would be more innovative than a tacky chair and less expensive than a hangman. Hank proposes a wire, and Colby looks disgusted, so the narrator speaks up in favor of a traditional rope. The narrator remembers Colby giving him a grateful look.

The final paragraph explains that the event is well-attended; a large, green rubber ball is used along with a tree; Colby ultimately chooses Elgar as his music; there is plenty of Scotch; and "no one has ever gone too far again."

Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 574

The story concerns the punishment of Colby Williams by his friends. Colby, it seems, has “gone too far”—when, how, and at what, the reader is not told. He readily admits that he has done this, claiming, however, that “going too far . . . was something everybody did sometimes.” His friends, an anonymous, all-male group, are unswayed by his reasoning and remain firm in their benevolent conviction that as his “dear friends” they have an obligation to punish him for his transgression by hanging him.

The hanging itself will be the climax of a gala social affair, and the bulk of the story centers on the arrangements that have to be made. Luckily, Colby’s friends are a cosmopolitan, multitalented group. They count among their ranks a conductor, an architect, people knowledgeable about printing and about the history of executions, environmental activists, and the owner of a car-and-truck rental business. Everyone’s talents are called on and everyone’s opinions are consulted, even Colby’s. The group is committed to bringing off the affair with éclat, and much of their discussion turns on setting the correctly festive tone for the event and making sure the day will be a success.

Colby shows his tendency to “go too far” when, graciously consulted about his preference for music for the occasion, he suggests Charles Ives’s Fourth Symphony, a gargantuan work that would “put [the friends] way over the music budget.” Disagreement about this choice threatens to disrupt the arrangements until Colby is sternly admonished to “be reasonable” and “think of something a little less exacting.” Once the question of the music is solved, the friends discuss the appearance and wording of the invitations. They dismiss some slight qualms about the illegality of the proceedings by claiming that “we had a perfect moral right [to hang Colby] because he was our friend, belonged to us in various important senses, and he had after all gone too far.” Referring to the hanging ambiguously as “An Event Involving Mr. Colby Williams,” they determine, will help them to evade unwelcome attention from the law. They decide to serve drinks and magnanimously assure Colby that he can drink, too, before the finale.

The mechanics of the hanging are a more complicated matter, but the friends pool their knowledge to overcome their lack of experience with such things. In a debate between building a gibbet or using a tree, they choose a tree for reasons of ease, economy, and most important, aesthetics—this will be a “June hanging,” and the full-leafed tree will “add a kind of ’natural’ feeling.” Aesthetic and environmental considerations lead the friends to dismiss the idea of a hangman or a firing squad (the latter is Colby’s suggestion, his last attempt at “going too far,” prudently rejected by Howard as an “ego trip” and as “unnecessary theatrics”). Instead, they decide, the guest of honor will jump off a large rubber ball considerately painted a deep green to blend in with the surroundings. For the noose, rope is selected over wire, for although the latter would be “more efficient,” it “would injure the tree.”

The friends’ scrupulous planning pays off, for at the end the reader is told that “everything went off very smoothly.” Not only is the event a social success (“a ’bang-up’ production right down to the wire”), but also, perhaps most important, it succeeds in its punitive aim, for “nobody has ever gone too far again.”

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