Thomas McGuane: “A Prairie Girl” from The New Yorker, 2/27/2012

New Yorker art by Stephen Shore: "2nd Street East & South Main Street, Kalispell, Montana"

New Yorker art by Stephen Shore: "2nd Street East & South Main Street, Kalispell, Montana"

When the old brothel – known as the Butt Hut – closed down, years ago, the house it had occupied was advertised in the paper; “Home on the river: eight bedrooms, eight baths, no kitchen. Changing times force sale.” The madam, Miriam Lawler, an overweight elder in the wash dresses of a ranch wife, beloved by her many friends, and famous for having crashed into the drive-up window of the bank with her old Cadillac, died and was buried at an exuberant funeral, and all but one of the girls dispersed.

Of all the many things of interest in this story, perhaps the least interesting one is the story itself. It’s the time-worn tale of a plucky woman making it against all odds and creating a better life for her son, the old Victorian novel of the poor servant girl marrying the boss’s son and inheriting the business, the inspirational story of refusing to be limited by the past and not letting bitterness get in the way of good judgment. Spanning several decades, it’s the story of Mary, a ranch girl from some time in the mid-twentieth century, her family scattered by the bank repossessing their home, who stays in town after it closes, marries Arnold, the gay son of the bank president, and eventually takes over the bank and sends her well-adjusted son to college.

At the end, I felt like Peggy Lee: is that all there is? It’s quite short, for a New Yorker story, less than 5 full pages, and while I found the first couple of pages to be charming and engrossing, it soon became routine. I kept hoping for a twist that would bring it back, but none came.

That isn’t to say it’s a bad story. In fact, while the story itself loses its luster after a promising beginning, there’s still a lot here to appreciate, but, for me, more on the level of craft than story.

I’m interested in the narrative voice. It’s as if some Montana version of Garrison Keillor (which is pretty much who Thomas McGuane is, now that I think about it) is telling us this yarn without identifying himself, which might be why I thought there’d be some kind of gotcha towards the end. Trevor of The Mookse and the Gripes crystallized this for me when he casually mentioned it’s first person omniscient (don’t you just love the Internet, someone somewhere knows just about everything there is to know), and now I’ve learned a new voice. I’ll call it “storyteller voice” because that’s a little more user-friendly than the formal term, but it’s a narrator outside the action who knows the thoughts and actions of all characters. In this case, Mary is in particular focus.

I’m interested in the way the story skips across at least twenty years in five pages. Here, McGuane’s Book Bench interview with Deborah Treisman comes to my rescue:

There’s something almost cinematic about the way you capture most of a life in a series of very quick scenes from it. Were you thinking of movies when you wrote this?

I’m not a moviegoer. I grew up in a town without a cinema and never caught the habit, though I have worked in the movies. I stole this narrative strategy from Muhammad Ali: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” It works if you have to cover ground in limited space. One of the limitations of “dirty realism” is that you can’t budge. If you’re a genius like Raymond Carver or his precursor Harold Pinter such confinement is an advantage. But, for many of their successors, it’s claustrophobic. Anyway, a speedier strategy seems to fit stories set in the American West, where demographic persistence is limited and society fluid.

As such, I wonder if it’s not so much a story about Mary as it is about those small towns in the West, where, as McGuane further says, nowadays “summer-home gentrification has altered the tone. In some of the prettier valleys, interior decorators are more common than ranch hands.”

But it wasn’t always that way, and there was a woman named Mary who started in a brothel and became a fine upstanding member of the community:

Over time, there came to be nothing disreputable about Mary whatsoever. Wonderful how dollars did that, and Mary had a little gold dollar sign on a chain around her pretty neck.

And with her gay stepping-stone of a husband (toward whom she evidences genuine, and reciprocated, affection) and the help of a fellow student at a bank loan officer training course, she had a son who turned out perfect: “Well brought up and popular, he was the first in his family to trail neither his past nor his proclivities like a lead ball. Maybe that’s the story of the towns of the West. Maybe, in this time when so many of us are caught in banking snares, it’s a primer, a how-to-survive book; after all, Mary “knew where to put her pain. She had her boy to think of, and where to put pain was a skill she’d learned early on.” In that, maybe it’s the story of the American dream itself, past, present, and future.

2 responses to “Thomas McGuane: “A Prairie Girl” from The New Yorker, 2/27/2012

  1. I think the “storyteller voice” is best explained by paragraph #5, where the town is described as a Greek chorus–town gossip serving the same function as a Greek chorus, or the same function as old-fashioned authorial narration, e.g. Dickens, Trollope. I don’t love the story, but I appreciate the departure from the orthodoxy of limited point of view, which was a new fictional technique 100 years ago. We believe in limited point of view because we believe in subjectivity. But it’s so expected and ordinary now. This point of view works because town gossip is subjective too–it’s not “omniscient” like a Victorian narrator or a Greek chorus, because town gossip biased, incomplete.

    • Hi Debra – like I was saying, the cool thing about the Internet is someone can come along and clarify – thanks so much, this is great stuff. It’s interesting now to read older novels with those omniscient narrators who aren’t characters but who are present in the reading, who interpret the story and pass judgment on the action, but as you say are outside of it – it does feel old-fashioned. I think I called it “opinionated third non-person” somewhere along the line. I think you’ve just inspired me to do a series on narration at some point, to get them all straight; I keep bumping into interesting examples (like howe Marko Fong classifies “Memoir Voice” and
      Flashlight Voice” by function) and I’d like to compile them into an organized whole so I can better make sense of them.
      I’m glad you stopped by.

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