The Storytellers

by Fred Chappell

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 708

The narrator begins by questioning whether the events he is about to recount actually occurred. Certainly, Jess says, there was an Uncle Zeno in his Appalachian childhood, but he cannot remember much about him as a person. What lingers in his memory is primarily a voice, telling stories. Uncle Zeno then takes over the narrative.

Zeno’s first story concerns a great hunter, Lacey Joe Blackman, whose dearest possession is an heirloom watch; a retired farmer, Setback Williams, who now spends his time growing apples; and a bear who is protected by the park service, even though he steals Setback’s apples and destroys his trees. The tale has a surprising ending. When the bear finally has to be shot, his body gets caught on a tree limb, and as it swings, Lacey times it with his prized watch and comments that it is slow. Jess’s father, Joe Robert, does not understand the story, but when he asks for an explanation, Zeno simply ignores him.

Jess now describes the efforts of his father, Joe Robert, to compete with Uncle Zeno. Feverishly, Joe Robert searches for stories to tell. He looks in the books around the house for old fairy tales and legends, and he collects anecdotes from people in the community. With a fine flourish, he tries out his discoveries on the family. Joe Robert always spoils even the best stories with his own embellishments and his theatrical endings. In contrast, Zeno seems to be a mere vehicle through which stories tell themselves.

The narrative now returns to Uncle Zeno, who is reminded of Buford Rhodes and his favorite coonhound, who is so smart that he can find a coon whose skin will fit any flat surface he sees. Unfortunately, seeing the ironing board, the hound sets off on an impossible quest, and Buford has to go in search of him.

By now, Joe Robert is so frustrated over Uncle Zeno’s inconclusive endings and so jealous of his skill that he cannot let his guest continue. Despite his mother-in-law’s expostulations, Joe Robert leaves to find the real Buford Rhodes, in order to ask him whether Zeno’s account is a true one. During his father’s absence, Jess happens on Uncle Zeno, sitting all alone, and finds that he is continuing with the story in progress, which now involves a cave and a Cherokee woman.

Late that afternoon, Jess’s father returns, reporting that he has not been able to find any trace of Rhodes. Joe Robert is sure that by casting doubt on Zeno’s truthfulness, he has invalidated his story of Buford and maybe all the others. As usual, he has missed the point. Unlike his father, Jess understands that the value of a story does not depend on its being factual. Jess, however, now has a rather unsettling theory about the relationship between fact and fiction. Because Buford Rhodes has disappeared as surely as the characters in Homer’s Iliad (750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611) and Odyssey (725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614), Jess now suspects that any individual who appears in fiction will promptly disappear from the real world.

At the supper table, Zeno’s story brings Buford home to his family, who are being supported by Elmer, now a teacher at the high school. Joe Robert has had enough. First he confronts Zeno with the news about Buford Rhodes, and then he launches angrily into the tale of a man who married a mountain girl and enjoyed entertaining her family, except for his wife’s storytelling relative, who drove him crazy.

After Joe Robert leaves the table, the mother and the grandmother try to understand his rude behavior toward Uncle Zeno, who they agree is harmless. Then Uncle Zeno begins another story. This time, to Jess’s dismay, the main character is his father. Recalling his theory about what fiction does to real people who are incorporated into it, Jess goes out to the porch to check on Joe Robert, who indeed admits that he feels a bit weak. When Jess says that some apple pie might help, Joe Robert gets up to go indoors. Just as Uncle Zeno’s voice falls silent, Jess sees his father disappearing into the darkness.

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