Thomas McGuane: “The Good Samaritan” from The New Yorker, 04/25/11

It wasn’t that he was proud of the John Deere tractor that he was still paying for and which he circled with a grease gun and washed down like a teenager’s car. He wasn’t proud of it: he loved it.

Telling people to relax is not as aggressive as shooting them, but it’s up there.

This second line is not the most central to the story, but it’s so good, I had to spotlight it. Even if it does shift POV.

Every time I read this story, I see something new. It didn’t impress me that much first time around, but I’m beginning to appreciate it. I think that’s one measure of a good story. Either that, or I’m a lousy first reader.

Szabo is the POV character. In his Book Bench interview, McGuane explains, “… leaving him without a first name gave me the sense of distance I felt I needed. It allowed me to suggest that while Szabo is omnipresent, the story doesn’t entirely belong to him.” I always am interested in how authors name their characters, but this is particularly interesting, since his mother also does not have a first name but he does not feel a need to explain that, and Deborah Treisman does not seem to notice at all since she asks why Szabo, “unlike other characters” did not get a first name. Apparently either his mother is not an “other character” or “his mother” and “Mrs. Szabo” are sufficient. I am a little puzzled by this, but it is not really part of the story. I know several men who genrally go by their last names. And a few women.

Szabo, whatever his first name, loves his tractor and his alfalfa ranch. We find out gradually about other things in his life that are not working so well. That’s another thing I find interesting (in this context, that’s code for “not right”) here. Halfway through the story, we find out something crucial about his son, David, after David has been mentioned already. This was jarring to me. Then there’s an evening in Dusseldorf which I’m sure has some complex symbolic meaning but I’m a bit at a loss as to its purpose, other than to emphasize how incompetent Szabo is.

And he is, I’m afraid, incompetent. His ranch (he prefers to call it “the property”) does not make any money on alfalfa, which is fine, actually: I understand doing something for love. But he’s had several serious injuries from work on the ranch, so he is not that good at it. Still, he loves it. I suppose it’s like basketball or hockey, the injuries are just something he accepts as part of the cost. He has a successful business but no longer makes things, he merely “distributes” things others make. His ex-wife, his mother, and his son all present their own difficulties. 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. He’s not totally unaware of his passivity: “When Szabo was growing up as an only child, his mother’s strong opinions, her decisive nature, had made him feel oppressed; now those qualities were what he most liked, even loved, about her.”

Then a stranger comes to town. Szabo hires Barney to take care of the ranch while he is recuperating from yet another injury. Barney takes care of quite a few things, in ways that are maybe not the way Szabo desires or expects. His horse, for example. Barney promises the horse will be “safe” to ride by the time Szabo recuperates, which is perplexing because Szabo has accepted that the horse has been safe to ride all along. Many things Szabo has accepted get fixed. Sometimes in odd ways. This is something I picked up on later, because on first read I didn’t quite register a line about insurance.

And Barney: the importance of name again. “He suddenly recalled, from David’s childhood, the purple dinosaur toy called Barney that was guaranteed to empower the child, a multimillion-dollar brainstorm for cashing in on stupid parents.” That’s the story in a nutshell right there.

I’m still left with some questions. Who is the titular Good Samaritan – Barney? But then, what does that make secretary Melinda, who Szabo credits with bringing him back from the brink of depression after his divorce, and who handles his business while he’s recuperating? Just a secretary? She found temporary ranchhand Barney: I wonder just how much she knew about him – just what is her role here? And I wonder how much Barney had to do with an important change of heart by Szabo’s ex-wife and new husband regarding son David: their comments sound like ripe psychobabble, after all… But there’s really nothing in the text but those hints. Maybe a few more readings?

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