REVIEW: “The Death of Paul Bunyan” by Charles Payseur

Review of Charles Payseur, “The Death of Paul Bunyan”, in Steve Berman, ed., Wilde Stories 2017: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction (Lethe Press, 2017): 279-286 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

The suits pass a glance amongst themselves like it’s weed at a folk rock concert and Johnny wishes he ad brought something to take the edge off. H remembers smoking with Paul and Babe, during a summer they spent in the northwest once. Bigfoot hunting, they said, though in the summer of 1944 draft dodgin was probably more accurate.

For me, this was the perfect piece to finish off the anthology with, which is why I left it for last. The title alone evoked both nostalgia — memories of the Paul Bunyan murals at the Memorial Union at UW-Madison where did my BA and MA — and also a bit of embarrassment when I realised I’ve left Wisconsin behind long enough ago that I do not remember the details of Paul and Babe’s story.
So of course I did what any self-respecting academic would do, and read up on them before reading Payseur’s story. (While utterly irrelevant to Payseur’s story, I feel honor-bound to inform all of you that Disney did an animated musical Paul Bunyan, featuring the voice of Tony the Tiger.) What surprised me — most likely because I never knew this in the first place — was the status of the Bunyan tales as “fake-lore”, that is, stories that were made up to be like folk tales but without the long oral history that folk tales have. But this is supposed to be a review of Payseur’s story and not a discourse on Paul Bunyan, so let’s go see what happens when Bunyan dies, because that is when this story begins:

Paul Bunyan has died. Paul Bunyan has died and Johnny Appleseed is heading north (p. 279).

Both Bunyan and Appleseed are men out of American myth, but their status as myths doesn’t prevent them from still being men. (Reading the story I had a strange sense that I was reading a superhero story.) But how one can be both myth and man is the pole around which this story pivots, and in turn the story — stories — are that which make Paul and Johnny who they are:

They’re all made of stories, people like Johnny, people like Paul (p. 283).

But does the story die because Paul does, or does Paul die because the story does? That ambiguity, dear reader, is why you should read this story for yourself.

(Originally published in Lightspeed, 2016.)