Saturday, April 4, 2015

Deal Me In, Week 14: "Have You Seen Sukie?" by Robert Penn Warren

It's week 14 of the Deal Me In short story reading challenge, and this week the 6 of spades invited me back to 1964 and a captivating story by Robert Penn Warren. This story was first published in The Virginia Quarterly Review, and anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 1964.


Robert Penn Warren, I suspect, is one of those authors that most people have at least heard of, but probably many fewer people have actually read. I know he was that way for me. His Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the King's Men has been on my TBR list for a LONG time, so maybe I will get around to reading it soon. He also won a Pulitzer Prize for his poetry (the only person to have ever won the Pulitzer for both fiction and poetry, according to Wikipedia), and he served as the U.S. Poet Laureate. So based on all that AND this story, I would very much like to read more of his stuff.

In the story "Have You Seen Sukie?" we are introduced to the character of Mr. "Boots" Budd, the deputy warden of an unnamed penitentiary. He's showing off the prison to a couple of visitors, and we never really get any information about why they are there. However, there's definitely a sense that they are there on some kind of official business, and that the Warden has fobbed them off on his deputy.

Far from being annoyed by this duty, Mr. Budd is happy to give the visitors a tour. He takes great pride in his job and how he keeps the prison running smoothly. During the tour, he comments on everything in such a way that we get to see pretty deeply into his psyche. Plus, Mr. Budd is chock full of aphorisms (dialect and all):

"Don't allow no guns in. Guns give somebody the notion of tryen to take a gun off somebody."

"You get the habit of turning yore head, and you will soon get the habit of being dead."

"We got a real nice pharmacist. Gonna have him a long time. Had him a nice drugstore in Brownsville and killed his wife. She caught him with the soda fountain gal. We are waiten for a real good doctor somewhere in this here state to kill his wife for ketchen him with the nurse."

"You know why they got in in the first place?" (Here Mr. Budd is referring to the inmates.) "It is because they are lonesome. Some folks are born lonesome and they can't stand the lonesomeness out there. It is lonesome in here maybe but it ain't as lonesome when you are with folks that knows they are as lonesome as you are."

Immediately after this comment, one of the visitors says, "Mr. Budd, you are a philosopher." Budd shoots back with, "I am a Deppity Warden." (That struck me as absolutely hilarious, but I still don't know why.)

Suddenly Budd says, "Let's go see Sukie," and it soon becomes apparent that Sukie is the name of the prison's electric chair. On the way to see the chair, they stop at the cell of one of the Death Row inmates, a young black man named Pretty-Boy. Budd asks the young man to sing a song for the visitors, and at this moment it finally struck me that Budd is not so much a deputy warden as he is a zookeeper of sorts, showing off his "collection" to the visitors. To me, the tone of the whole encounter with Pretty-Boy is one of a animal trainer putting his animal through its paces.

When Budd and his visitors finally make it to the small, bare room where Sukie is kept, Budd positively begins to rhapsodize about the chair: how it works, how beautiful it is, etc. It turns out that Budd also serves as the executioner, the person who throws the switch. "She is ever-man's sweetheart," he says. "Sukie -- she is waiten for you."

As you can tell, there wasn't actually much of a plot to this story, but I liked it a lot nonetheless. It was a fascinating psychological study of Budd, who thinks that no one is completely innocent. Warren deftly paints a picture of Budd and his mental state as he rules the prison with an iron fist.

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


  1. Hi Randall,
    I was just thinking that, at the end of the year, you should rate which of the four BASS anthologies you're using ended providing the best stories. (I know you're not reading all of the stories in each and you didn't even choose them all yourself, allowing followers' participation, but was just curious if one year ends up standing out of the four you've chosen.)

    1. That's an excellent idea. The stories in the volumes do seem to be a little "uneven," especially since each of the four volumes I am reading was edited, and the stories were chosen, by a different editor.

  2. I used to have All the King's Men on my TBR shelf, too. I even tried to read it once. Didn't make it. I should give one of his short stories a go. This one sounds kind of fun in a creepy way.