‘The Honored Dead’ by Breece D’J Pancake

The Honored Dead by Breece D’J Pancake, 1981

The magic trick:

Showing a variety of negative feelings the narrator has

I wonder if Pancake got the chance to read Barry Hannah’s story collection Airships before he died. I bet so. Certainly, “The Honored Dead” seems to have mastered Hannah’s particular blend of fatalism, ego, misogyny, death, and Vietnam. That’s quite a combo right there, and Pancake mixes it expertly in this story.

We bounce around different flashes in the narrator’s memory – all the way from ancient mound builders to his high school sweetheart. All of it seems to leave the narrator cold. He’s ashamed that his friend died in Vietnam while he dodged the draft. Yet he’s also jealous and even hateful toward that friend. Life is a confusion for him right now. The story only presents these things. It’s up to the reader to connect and assess them.

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

The selection:

My grandfather always laid keenness on his Shawnee blood, his half-breed mother, but then he was hep on blood. He even had an oath to stop bleeding, but I don’t remember the words. He was a fair to sharp woodsman, and we all tried to slip up on him at one time or another. It was Ray at the sugar mill finally caught him, but he was an old man by then, and his mind wasn’t exactly right. Ray just came creeping up behind and laid a hand on his shoulder, and the old bird didn’t even turn around; he just wagged his head and said, “That’s Ray’s hand. He’s the first fellow ever slipped on me.” Ray could’ve done without that because the old man never played with a full deck again, and we couldn’t keep clothes on him before he died.

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