Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby by Donald Barthelme

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"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.

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."


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 1,024 words.)