Monday, February 16, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 7: "Nicodemus Bluff" by Barry Hannah

I'm a little late with my short story review this week. This is actually last week's story. Too much job and not enough week, is my diagnosis of the problem. But better late than never! The card was the three of diamonds, and the story was a wholly underwhelming selection from The Best American Short Stories 1994.

"Nicodemus Bluff" by Barry Hannah is an odd little story that I didn't care for. To begin with, it was one of those stories that I honestly didn't know what was going on until at least halfway through the story. Sometimes that works as an effective technique, but in this story it just didn't.

The narrator, Harris, recounts a strange weekend at a deer camp with his father, Gomar, and some men that his father owed a great deal of money. Money that he didn't pay back. So it is that he and his father find themselves at the lodge and his father starts playing chess with a Mr. Pool, who owns the lodge and who is evidently one of his father's creditors. And this is no ordinary game of chess. For one thing, Gomar turns out to be a champion chess player. The chess games last long into the night and into the next two days. Finally Gomar wins, and the next thing we know, he and Pool are out in the woods and Pool is beating Harris' dad over the head with a pistol. He doesn't kill him, but Gomar dies not too long after that in an accident that sounds suspiciously like suicide, and the money he won keeps his family in high clover afterwards.

The title of the story comes from a Negro servant, Nicodemus, who worked for Mr. Pool at the lodge for many years. His ghost is supposed to haunt the nearby bluff, because he was shot by Pool. Granted, it was after he had been diagnosed with cancer, and he owed Pool more money than he could ever hope to pay back, and the story was that he asked Pool to shoot him. The story unsettles Harris, nonetheless, and it somehow provides a backdrop to the events of the story.

Is this a story of redemption, in which Gomar succeeds in overcoming his debt (although the strain of it seems to exact a toll on him anyway) whereas Nicodemus failed in overcoming his? I have no idea. It was one of the strangest stories I have read in a long time, and even though Hannah hailed from Meridian, Mississippi, a small town not too terribly far from where I live, and even though he won many awards during his life, he doesn't strike me as in the same league with some of the other more famous writers from Mississippi, or even from the South in general. I will probably give him another chance sometime, but it won't be anytime soon. Does anyone else have any insight into Hannah's work? Please comment!

The Deal Me In short story challenge is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.


  1. Hrm. It seemed like such a promising title.

    1. Well, you can't always judge a story by its title, I guess! :-)

  2. I'll read any story with a chess game in it. :-)

    Have you read Vonnegut's "All the King's Horses?" Your picture would be appropriate for that story as it appears the player whose arm is in the picture is wearing camo military fatigues(?)

    1. Never read that one. But as it turns out, I just consulted my Kindle, and I do own the collection it appears in (Welcome to the Monkey House). So I think I'll be reading it very soon, since you brought it up! :-)