The Critics’ Corner
The Logic of “The Unbefriended Dead”
with Bill Bowler and Don Webb
Robert Earle’s “The Unbefriended Dead” appears in issue 510. It is a fictional article from a newspaper called the “Times” and is dated July 17, 1976.
Context: a boy goes on regular walking tours in New York City with his father and younger sister at some time in the 1940’s.
We walked and looked and talked about what we saw — the buildings, the bridges, the construction sites, the store windows, traffic, scraggly trees and modest diners where we decided to take a break before heading off again.
If you did that in the 1950s or if you did it today, you inevitably would see something likely to register on you with uncommon force. There are corpses in the city. Some look like they are sleeping, and some really are sleeping, but the ones that aren’t sleeping, that are lying in the various postures of death, eyes open, blood evident somewhere on their body or not, perhaps sprawled face down on the asphalt or cement or bricks in a way no one would choose to sleep, have left life never to return.
[Bill Bowler] I note with some amazement that “The Unbefriended Dead” has been received quite favorably. I can’t see why. The story purports to be realistic and yet its premise is preposterous.
Where were these corpses? If there were five or six a year, how did the boy and his father find them? They just stumbled on them? How did they know the bodies were unidentified? I submit that it was impossible to go for a stroll in New York City in 1976 — or at any other time that I know of — and see dead bodies lying around.
I've seen the body of at least one suicide. The guy had jumped from the roof of my building one morning. I took someone up to the roof late that afternoon to show them where, and when we looked over the edge, the body was still there, sprawled in the back alley! That was a bit shocking, I must admit.
Elderly residents have passed away in apartments in my building. People in my building have been murdered. But when I go to the supermarket, I don’t generally see dead bodies lying across the trash bins or hanging from fire escapes. That’s my problem with the story premise: it treats as common something that is quite uncommon.
While the story does seem to slander my hometown, I would raise the same objection if it were set in Cleveland or Phoenix. I don’t believe there are corpses lying around. I don’t believe the premise upon which the story is built, and the illogic of the fiction undermines the validity of the essay.
[Don Webb] I, for one, have to agree that nobody who goes out for a walk in New York City would be greeted by sidewalks cluttered with corpses, neither in the 1940’s nor in 1976, nor today. New York has fortunately been spared the carnage of WW2, Cambodia, and Syria.
I would agree, too, that one is very unlikely to chance across human remains in New York and even more unlikely to do so in any smaller city of North America. But your own example of the suicide shows that in a metropolis the unlikely is still not impossible.
One wording is unfortunate: “If you did that in the 1950s or if you did it today, you inevitably would see something likely to register on you with uncommon force.” Unless the fictional author Ellis Theodore is writing in an alternate universe, no one will “inevitably” see dead bodies randomly littering the streets of New York or any other North American city. I consider “inevitably” a misplaced modifier:
—> If you did that in the 1950s or if you did it today, you might see something that would inevitably register on you with uncommon force.
The correction is justified by what the essay implies. If the sight of a corpse is “likely to register on you with uncommon force,” it can do so only as long as the sight itself is uncommon.
Does the author suggest that “more” may mean “many”? Yes, he certainly does. Now why might that be? He’s reporting an impression formed when he was a child of six, at most. He thought he saw a dead body on a fire escape; therefore he may have seen more.
We have here a classic illustration of one of our unofficial mottoes: “Readers take everything literally unless they know they’re supposed to do otherwise.” Did the child actually see dead bodies “on asphalt, or cement or bricks”? Or “in a doorway, on a park bench, perhaps even on the fire escape of an abandoned building”? New Yorkers especially would know that’s very unlikely. But memory — like dreams or thought itself — is a way of interpreting the past: those are the places and conditions in which the boy might have seen them.
And now, almost thirty years later, he tells himself how he feels about death, and what it means when the dead have no relative or even friend to claim their remains and give them a formal burial.
New York City is relevant to the essay in only one way: it has a long history of tidily disposing of — or burying, if you will — the “unbefriended dead,” wherever they may have been found. The story thus serves as a model to any metropolis or hamlet in the world. And the gift of friendship — belated though it may be — adds meaning to the lives of those who give it as well as to lives whose meaning remains otherwise unknown.