BASS 2015: Thomas McGuane, “Motherlode” from The New Yorker, 9/8/14

Looking in the hotel mirror, David Jenkins adjusted the Stetson he disliked and pulled on a windbreaker with a cattle-vaccine logo. He worked for a syndicate of cattle geneticists in Oklahoma, though he’d never met his employers—he had earned his credentials through an online agricultural portal, much the way that people became ministers. He was still in his twenties, a very bright young man, but astonishingly uneducated in every other way. He had spent the night in Jordan at the Garfield Hotel, which was an ideal location for meeting his ranch clients in the area. He had woken early enough to be the first customer at the café. On the front step, an old dog slept with a cancelled first-class stamp stuck to its butt. By the time David had ordered breakfast, older ranchers occupied several of the tables, waving to him familiarly. Then a man from Utah, whom he’d met at the hotel, appeared in the doorway and stopped, looking around the room. The man, who’d told David that he’d come to Jordan to watch the comets, was small and intense, middle-aged, wearing pants with an elastic waistband and flashy sneakers. Several of the ranchers were staring at him. David had asked the hotel desk clerk, an elderly man, about the comets. The clerk said, “I don’t know what he’s talking about and I’ve lived here all my life. He doesn’t even have a car.”

~~ Available online at The New Yorker

Because it appeared in TNY, opinions on this story abound: Grant Catton, Paul Debraski from I Just Read About That, and the gang at The Mookse and the Gripes contain astute comments. Apparently it’s similar in style to Cormac McCarthy, whom I’ve never read out of lack of interest in 21st century tough-guy chic, and the Coen brothers films, which I have seen. I see the connection to the latter, now that it’s pointed out: people without competence or morality, who still manage to evoke a twinge of sympathy, running smack into what they deserve. It’s possible I just wasn’t cut out for this kind of fiction.

A couple of notes. I had an overall favorable view of David, the point-of-view character, at the start. I found it fascinating that credentials for cattle insemination can be obtained online, that there is such a vocation. I find it doubly fascinating that David “brought art to it”; if you can bring art, genius, to putting semen into cows, you can bring them to anything. I didn’t really understand how he went from that to another grifter on the make, but we all have some inner flaw we’ve somehow managed to patch over, and he seems to have had the misfortune to encounter the circumstances that broke through that patch.

I was off-kilter throughout the piece – comets, guns, cows, cars, what kind of story is this? Then the airplane left me wondering, is this a normal thing in Montana, airplanes landing in front of cars to get the driver’s attention? Hey, I’m gullible, what can I say. So the dementia angle came as a relief.

While I had a pretty good sense of David, and came to realize Weldon’s problem was not so much his patched-over flaw as the plaques and tangles in his brain, I still don’t have any idea what’s going on with Ray or Morsel, who they are when they’re not scamming, what they’re doing there. But I loved the ending, somehow, without actually following the story very well. It seemed perfect.

So what does this have to do with fracking? Because, according to McGuane’s Contributor Note, that’s the force behind the story:

I started out with some vague ideas about the energy industry, about a more pastoral version of the West, and about the skills learned through agriculture, and how they would finally clash. This was in danger of remaining pretty abstract, pretty ideological, not to mention uninteresting until occupied by human beings, characters I had on hand; and my feeling for the country I was talking about. The energy industry and its taxation on the earth is concentrated in specific places. The extraction of oil from shale through fracking has befallen parts of North Dakota and Montana. Its profits are astronomical. Few dare to stand up in the face of this tidal wave of money. The arrival of hookers, drug gangs, and gunmen in guileless prairie towns and their credulous boosters has been unspeakable. You need to see such broad things through the eyes of individuals in order to ake plausible fiction.. As usual, this often calls upon a writer’s capacity for finding voices for the voiceless. Nothing new about that, but it can be a challenge when, as in the case of “Motherlode”, there is such extraordinary distance between these lives and the forces that rule them.

~~Thomas McGuane, Contributor note, BASS 2015

After reading this, I think I better understood what the story was “trying to do”, as we say when we aren’t sure what it actually did. I can see David as the rural tradition of Montana, derailed of late by dreams of “oro y plata” (the state motto) and headed for disaster. McGuane seems pretty convinced the state, like David, is throwing away its birthright for a mess of pottage. It wouldn’t be the first time money scraped the thin patch off what was already there, all along.

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5 responses to “BASS 2015: Thomas McGuane, “Motherlode” from The New Yorker, 9/8/14

  1. Is it possible to both admire the social commentary and how skillfully it was done on the one hand, and still think this was a boring story on the other? I’m not saying I think the story was hurt by the overall thematic interest. That’s all that saved it for me. I think this is another case of me just not being fair as a reader. A lot of times, our receptiveness is predicated on how long it’s been since we’ve seen something similar. For me, I think the Coen brothers and McCarthy made this just not seem new to me. Not McGuane’s fault.

    Side note: nobody in the military calls lodging “billets” anymore. David wasn’t cleaning billets. He might have cleaned “barracks” or something like that. Nowadays, “billets” always refers to authorized roster positions granted to a unit. “We only have enough billets to carry four mechanics.”

    • Interesting – I thought “Thunderstruck was one of the more plotless stories – that is, the story is more in the introspection and insights than in “what happened next.” And just the opposite for “Motherlode” – I thought it was one of the more plot-driven stories. Boring is the last word I’d think of. I wondered if the payoff would be worth the tortuous path, but I must say I was curious about where it was going.

      As for admiring technique (or social commentary) while not “liking” the story, sure, happens to me all the time. I tend to like what most people call “tricks” – experiments in voice, narration, structure – but i think a lot of people call them “tricks” because they can’t pull them off successfully. It’s why I gravitate towards second person. I also like content, though that’s more unpredictable; I’m more likely to not like a story because I don’t like the content, than to like it because I like the content.

      In recent decades, the percentage of Americans who have personal contact with anyone in the military has dwindled down, which may be why everyone’s so willing to send someone else’s loved one off to war. So we’re ignorant about military authenticity. I wonder if editors care.

      Have you read David Abrams’ “Fobbit”? It’s the only military-based novel I’ve read in years (the military is one of those content things I tend to not-like, but I followed his blog through the writing, editing and publishing process, then won a copy in a giveaway). I’d have no way of knowing how authentic it is, but he is retired military so I’d imagine he’d get it right.

  2. You’re right, this was very much a plot-driven story. (I thought “Motherlode” was fairly plot-driven, too. My test for importance of plot is whether you can retell the story in a gist form and have it do some justice to the story. If you can, then plot is fairly important to the story. So: “Motherlode” is about a family who are worried when their newly pubescent girl begins to act out, so they take a trip to Paris to get her away from bad influences. The girl ends up acting out in Paris, too, and she suffers a catastrophic brain injury. Yeah, it works. Not so much for “Fugue.” It’s a story about a guy who went to Iraq and participated in an atrocity and now his brain is kind of all fucked up. That’s not quite it. It’s like saying the New Testament is the story of a Jewish carpenter.)

    I just thought the plot was dull. I didn’t care what happened. Why? Who can say? I’m probably just being unfair. Sometimes, I can see that a story deserves my love, but I’m just unable to give it.

  3. Pingback: Exit (BASS 2015) | A Just Recompense

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