One pleasant afternoon Mazuma O'Shaunessey was in jail in a little town in Scotland. The jailer was gloomy and suspicious and not given to joking.
“No tricks from you now. I will not be taken.”
“Just one to show I have the power. Stand back so I can't reach you.”
“I'm not likely to let you.”
“And hold up a pound note in one hand as tightly as you can. I will only flick my handkerchief and the note will be in my hand and no longer in yours.”
“Man I defy you. You cannot do it.”
He held the note very tightly and closed his eyes with the effort. Mazuma flicked his handkerchief, but the Scotsman was right. He could not do it. This was the only time that Mazuma ever failed. Though the world quivered on its axis (and it did) yet the note was held so tightly that no power could dislodge it. But when the world quivered on its axis the effect was that Mazuma was now standing outside the cell and the Scotsman was within. And when the Chief came some minutes later Mazuma was gone and the Scotch jailer stood locked in the cell, his eyes still closed and the pound note yet held aloft in a grip of steel. So he was fired, or cashiered as the Old Worlders call it, for taking a bribe and letting a prisoner escape. And this is what usually comes as punishment to overly suspicious persons.
-from "Adam Had Three Brothers" (first published in New Mexico Quarterly Review, Fall 1960)
This is a classic Laffertian take on the tall tale. The stacked reversals and jokes, the simultaneous understatement and overstatement, the simultaneous effect of both laugh-out-loud humour and heart-stopping wonder - it's something you see probably hundreds of times across his body of fiction in little self-contained vignettes like this. He inflates the comic exaggeration technique of the tall tale and thereby giantizes giantism, here at the level of the entire planet (or cosmos, depending on how you read 'the world'). The planetary axis-quiver produces a particular physical wonder that is almost Lynchian rather than just wildly funny and marvellous. Traditional tall tales often narrate the impossible, but here Lafferty's impossibility is not a mere verbal flight of fancy or 'whopper' of a lie. It has strong hints of the uncanny. It's a little (or a lot) disturbing in its casual disturbance and redistribution of reality. But no sooner are readers perhaps feeling some heebie-jeebies than Lafferty hits them with the final topper of a punchline: that the jailer was fired for taking a bribe. Hilarious. You've barely registered the gigantically weird and uncanny aspect of the tale before what began as a chuckle has turned into a guffaw. And it is in just such ways that Lafferty achieves what I call a 'horror-comic' mode of storytelling. The world-shift and spatial reversal is so huge and outrageous that it's not out of order to call it monstrous. But it is narrated through particularly effective comedy and thus the trembling of both laughter and terror are combined (as Lafferty explicitly maintains in his story 'Days of Grass, Days of Straw'). Admittedly, the valence of 'horror' in this episode may be quite buried and perhaps slight. I was in fact surprised to note that it was an element of my emotional response to this yarn when I read it this time. I hadn't noticed that before. In any case, as any reader of Lafferty knows, he makes the horror far more explicit in any number of stories and novels, usually with no less humour and laughter.
One more tidbit: there's an implied joke about tight-fisted Scots here (whether conscious or incidental on Lafferty's part I don't know). Scots are famous even among themselves for being 'cheap' or thrifty. It's something I've heard them joke about since we moved to Scotland in 2002. One of my favourite jokes they've told me is that there were three British ministers telling each other why they loved the Christian gospel of salvation (indicating the national stereotypes of being intellectual, emotional, and frugal respectively). Englishman: I love it because you can analyse it with your mind. Welshman: I love it because you can sing it with your heart. Scotsman: I love it because it's free.
No idea if Lafferty intended it or not, but it's hilarious to me that only a Scotsman could hold onto his money so tightly as to constitute the only instance in Mazuma O'Shaunessey's life in which he failed at performing one of his powerful tricks.