‘The Story Of A Dead Man’ by James Alan McPherson

The Story Of A Dead Man by James Alan McPherson, 1977

The magic trick:

Contrasting the life choices and results of two cousins – both named William – and bringing both characters together for a tense final scene

We’re doing a week of stories from Elbow Room, the 1977 collection that won James Alan McPherson the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

“The Story Of A Dead Man” is a good starting point, one of the many stories here that plunge into questions of identity and race and class. Specifically, we have two cousins here. They’re both named William. One is our narrator. He puts his faith in the system and comes out the other side a seemingly happy, comfortable, middle-class family man. His cousin, on the other hand, rebels against the system from his childhood on. They come together in one awkward, but riveting, night of drinks and stories in the narrator’s home.

It may be a fairly obvious story structure, but there’s no denying it works.

And that’s quite a trick on McPherson’s part.

The selection:

I had not anticipated that Chelseia’s parents would be at home. Usually on Thursday evenings they played canasta with a church group. But, being selfless people, they had canceled their engagement when they heard from Chelsea that my cousin was in town. Mr. Raymond himself had prepared the dinner. I wanted things to go smoothly. “Billy is more a traveling salesman,” I answered for my cousin. “His business takes him around the country.”

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