Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby

by Donald Barthelme
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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 679

"Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby" is short piece of fiction by novelist and short story writer, Donald Barthelme. It discusses the capital punishment of the title character, Colby, who committed an unnamed offense which the narrator describes as constituting having "gone too far." Colby's group of so-called friends have already come to an agreement about the execution, and each offers an opinion or proposes rendering a service for the affair.

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This piece has rightly been called a piece of absurdist fiction. The title purports to threaten Colby; however, the matter of the execution is in fact a foregone conclusion. Rather than addressing the reason for the execution (which the reader would naturally want to know), the story features discussions about the logistical facets of the punishment, told by a narrator who is not named. Select quotations include:

Hugh was worried about the wording of the invitations. What if one of them fell into the hands of the authorities? Hanging Colby was doubtless against the law, and if the authorities learned in advance what the plan was they would likely come in and try to mess everything up. I said that although hanging Colby was almost certainly against the law, we had perfect moral right to do so because he was our friend, belonged to use in various important senses, and after all had gone too far. We agreed the invitations would be worded in such a way that the person invited could not know for sure what he was being invited to.

This decision engages with reality to the extent that it acknowledges the gravity of the punishment. This excerpt also suggests the brainwashing power of the corporate body of friends. Lastly, it demonstrates the alleged moral imperative of friends to regulate group behavior.

At this point everybody looked at Harry, who runs a car-and truck-rental business. Harry said that he thought he could round up enough limousines to take care of that end but that the drivers would have to be paid. The drivers, he pointed out, wouldn't be friends of Colby's and couldn't be expected to donate their services, any more than the bartender or the musicians. He said that he had about ten limousines which he used mostly for funerals, and that he could probably obtain another dozen by calling around to friends of his in the trade.

This quote reduces the entire hanging to a business affair (much like a wedding or party). It also underscores the extent to which each man feels compelled (even excited at the opportunity) to play a role in the event.

At the mention of "wire," Hank, who had been silent all this time, suddenly spoke up and said he wondered if it wouldn't be better if we used wire instead of rope—more efficient and in the end kinder to Colby, he suggested. Colby began looking a little green, and I didn't blame him, because there is something extremely distasteful in thinking about being hanged with wire instead of rope—it gives you a sort of revulsion, when you think about it.

This is an especially ironic moment in an already farcical story, as it shows that the characters have a sense of revulsion when it comes to corporal punishment that owes primarily to respect for tradition rather than resistance to the act of hanging itself.

The two things I remember best about the whole episode are the grateful look Colby gave me when I said what I said about the wire, and the fact that nobody has ever gone too far again.

Finally, this quote (from the story’s final lines) reveals the narrator's unique relationship to Colby. It is a provocative conclusion, as it does not allow the story to be reduced to pure logistics. It affirms that the narrator has an emotional component (the narrator has previously advocated for the use of rope instead of wire on the grounds that it is less likely to harm the tree!). This makes his willingness to participate in the execution of his friend more ironic.

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