Thomas McGuane: “The House on Sand Creek” from The New Yorker, 10/3/2011

New Yorker Art: "Cover" 2002 by Thomas Allen

The feeling came back to me, from the days of our marriage, that I was doomed in life to take a lot of shit and make weak jokes in response.

This is the second Thomas McGuane story I’ve read from The New Yorker; Of the first, “The Good Samaritan,” I said: “His life is not a disaster – the bright spot is the alfalfa ranch – but he’s pretty much downtrodden, particularly by women. He’s quite passive in all this, letting everyone ruin their lives, and his in the process, without much objection.” This narrator is pretty much the same thing without the bright spot of the alfalfa ranch, but with the addition of a sense of humor. It’s a pretty hilarious story, in a very schlemazel sort of way.

It’s also a character story. The narrator, unnamed (I love that, it fits perfectly), is surrounded by crazy people. His wife-ex-again, Monika – “Monika was not only not a Westerner; she was not even an American. She had been stranded in architecture school by the uproar in the former Yugoslavia, and by the time it was safe for her to go home we had met and planned to marry” – does indeed deal out a lot of shit. But he signed up for it. His Montana house, rented sight-unseen after being abandoned by a defaulting “buckaroo,” comes complete with coyote carcasses and a dead horse and shotgun holes in the bathroom. He’s a lawyer, but just barely:

I was running an underemployed law office that five years earlier had done thirty real-estate closings a month and now did at most two and often none. Booms in real estate came and went, like the weather, except that there always seemed to be plenty of weather.
I am aware that my ability to wittily point out things like this, and to describe the house the way I am describing it, has a lot to do with the fact that Monica left soon after we’d moved in. She abandoned what she contemptuously described as “the Western life style” to return to her parents in Bosnia-Herzogovinia.

His neighbor, Bob, self-described former cowboy, completes the trio:

…Bob, a retired electrician, had not been a cowboy for at least forty-five of his sixty-two years. Further investigation suggested that his cowboy years had occurred somewhere between the sixth and seventh grade and may have lasted just under a month….Bob never shut up, and his facial movements had more in common with those of Soupy Sales than those of John Wayne. A surprising number of his anecdotes culminated in his telling people off, especially members of his own family.”

Turns out Bob’s family is as long gone as his cowboyhood.

Monika returns with a child – a black child, to the narrator’s surprise – from the husband she acquired and dequired. She gives a sort of explanation, complete with her tendency, like Bob, to use facts as mere starting points:

She was perfectly candid about her enthusiasm for food, explaining that her ex was a glutton. “Often when people come from lands of scarce resources their response to abundance is gluttony.”
“A big fellow, is he?” I asked weakly.
“In every way,” she said with a laugh. “You know what a Mandingo is?”
“Is it something to eat?”
“No, idiot! A Mandingo is an African warrior. You’re thinking of a mango.”
“Oh. Is he an African warrior?”
“Hardly. He’s a Nigerian neurosurgeon. But Olatunde has the sort of Mandingo traits that I hope Karel inherits. He’s actually Yoruban.”

Bob’s reaction to Karel is darkly hilarious. At first he thinks the boy has a skin condition. Once he realizes he is actually biracial, he supplies gifts: “A children’s biography of Martin Luther King, Jr.; James Brown’s “Greatest Hits”; and a pretend leg of fried chicken made out of some rubberlike material. ‘He can actually teethe on it!’ Bob said.” Monika actually shows some insight when she worries about what Karel will face as he grows up: “That was America speaking through Bob.”

There’s more – a cute babysitter, a not-really-kidnapping – that serves as a sort of plot. But character is more or less what this pieces has to offer, I think. And they’re well-done characters. There are a few “memoir voice” lapses into present tense, including the one quoted above and another at the very end. The end point seems to be “and this keeps going on and on for a while” which feels incomplete to me. The narrator’s whole life is allowing himself to be stepped on; I see no movement at all, just the scenery changing around him. Which might be fitting for this passive a narrator.

The Book Bench interview, as usual, gave additional perspective on the story.

I’m fascinated by the way human beings go about their business despite all plausible discouraging information. Comedy provides a bit of distance from this sad business. It can appear, at dark moments, that the condition of every life is some form of Stockholm Syndrome. Still, it’s encouraging that some strong people absorb all this and soldier on: that’s pretty much what the Nigerian neurosurgeon stands for.

I think all the characters in the story absorb whatever’s around them, soldiering on without change despite the chaos – largely self-generated – of their lives; it’s just that the Nigerian neurosurgeon started in a rational spot, whereas Bob, Monika and the narrator are soldiering on in their dysfunction. But I felt very kindly towards him for declaring “the short story is the characteristic American literary form.” Even if every publisher out there will ask, “You got a novel with that?”

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