The Day The Dam Broke by James Thurber, 1933
The magic trick:
Building a story around one punch line
As far as I’m concerned, all the stories in Thurber’s collection My Life And Hard Times are chasing the legend of “The Night The Bed Fell.” They try to recreate the chaos and hilarity of “Bed,” but never meet the challenge. It’s like an album whose first track is an all-time great single. How is the rest of the record gonna live up to that?
“Dam” is the unfortunate comedy that isn’t funny. It relies on literally one joke to sustain its entire text. The people in Columbus thought the dam broke, so they started running, but it turns out the dam never broke.
Are you laughing yet?
Yeah, so I’m not going to suggest this is my favorite story. But I will salute its commitment to the theme. It makes that ironic point from the start and works on selling its punch line the rest of the way.
And that’s quite a trick on Thurber’s part.
A loud mumble gradually crystallized into the dread word “dam.” “The dam has broke!” The fear was put into words by a little old lady in an electric, or by a traffic cop, or by a small boy: nobody knows who, nor does it now really matter. Two thousand people were abruptly in full flight. “Go east!,” was the cry that arose — east away from the river, east to safety. “Go east! Go east! Go east!”
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