Short story review from: The Best American Short Stories 1994 – “Nicodemus Bluff” by Barry Hannah

Welcome to an occasional feature on Book Club Mom. Short reviews of short fiction. This selection comes from the 1994 edition of The Best American Short Stories, edited by Tobias Wolff.

“Nicodemus Bluff”
Barry Hannah

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Middle-aged Harris is trying to dry out from thirty years of numbing drugs, a self-induced stupor that’s been partly assisted over the years by Mr. Kervochian, the town druggist.

Ten-year-old Harris is trying to understand what’s going on inside the deer lodge where he and his father, Gomar, and a group of men from the town have gone for a hunting trip. The weather’s gone bad; torrential rain has blocked them in and the men are drinking hard and playing poker. From outside, Harris hears loud, angry voices and is uneasy. When he enters the lodge he sees his father and Mr. Pool, the town’s banker, one of the men who has loaned his father a great deal of money. They are deep in concentration, sitting at a table, a chess board between them. Harris thinks these men are his father’s friends, but seeing their faces, he isn’t sure anymore.

Gomar is uneducated, rough, but he’s been smoothing out his image. He’s on the rise, helped, he believes, by these men. A real estate man, Gomar thinks he’s also helped his new friends out on a big land acquisition, and that this deal will buy him some time on the loans he’s behind in repaying.

The chess match frightens Harris, who knows that Gomar has an uncanny ability to beat every opponent. It doesn’t fit, this talent, and Harris can see the dark anger and disgust on Mr. Pool’s face. A man who struggles to read should not have this edge. And to make it worse, Gomar enters a different kind of state when he plays, crafty, and decidedly female in his gestures and words, a goading, thinks Mr. Pool.

As Harris and Mr. Kervochian walk down to Nicodemus Bluff, Harris learns about the twisted and controlling power of money and loans. He does not yet understand that his father is in the same miserable situation as Nicodemus from years ago, a black man deeply in debt to the Pool family, now buried under the bluff.

This story is about money and power and class, but it’s also about women and class, particularly Harris’s mother, who is from modest means, but carries herself with dignity and is esteemed because of her beauty. Young Harris does not grasp any of this and, now a man who has wasted half his life; he’s just at the edge of the fog.

Barry Hannah tells a terrific story here, one that gives you a horrible gut feeling as you read. You know it’s headed to a bad place, you just don’t know how. His character descriptions are so real you can feel the tension in the lodge. You can feel the same confused dread Harris feels. You think you are grateful to Mr. Kervochian for his efforts to look after Harris at the lodge, but wonder about the thirty years that have passed.

Another great short story – check it out!

Barry Hannah was an American author from the south, who lived from 1942-2010. He wrote a great deal of fiction, beginning with Geronimo Rex which was published in 1976. At the time of his death, Hannah was director of the MFA program at the University of Mississippi, in Oxford, where he taught creative writing for 28 years.

Here are two great links that describe Hannah’s life and career:

Writers and Musicians
New York Times

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