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.

Thomas McGuane: “Weight Watchers” from TNY, 11/4/13

TNY Art by Grant Cornett

TNY Art by Grant Cornett

I have no real complaints about my upbringing. My parents were self-absorbed and never knew where I was, which meant that I was free, and I made good use of that freedom. I’ve been asked if I was damaged by my family life, and the answer is a qualified no; I know I’ll never marry, and, halfway through my life, I’m unable to imagine letting anyone’s new stay in my house for more than a night – and preferably not a whole night. Rolling over in the morning and finding… Let’s not go there. I build houses for other people, and it works for me.

I’ve run hot and cold with Thomas McGuane stories (he, like Tessa Hadley, has made frequent appearances in TNY over the past couple of years). I was running cold on this one until I read what Betsy at The Mookse and the Gripes had to say, at which point I thought I should probably go back and read his other stories that ran cold to find out what I’d missed. It’s not running cold any more.

The title is loaded with meaning, as all of us could stand to lose a little weight. And that isn’t referring to pounds of fat. The story purports to tell the story of a father’s visit to his son, a visit precipitated by mom kicking him out of the marital home because he’d gained too much weight. But that’s just structure; functionally, it’s a biography of a family.

Per Tolstoy, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and these parents seem happily unhappy. They cheat on each other; they fight; they blame each other for the emptiness of their lives and find ways to punish each other for giving them what they want. The narrator is the product of this dysfunctional family; that is the weight he has had to lose, and he has; but that came at a cost of the ability to connect with other people.

He’s also lost the weight of his “fine education” to work as a contractor. Some of the most searing passages come from his observations about class in this country where we have historically insisted we are classless:

He felt that he had clambered up a few rungs, and his big fear was that I was clambering back down. As a tradesman – I run a construction crew – I had clearly fallen below the social class to which my father thought I should belong. He believed that fine education he’d paid for should have led me to greater abstraction, but while it’s true that the farther you get from an actual product the better your chances for economic success, I and many of my classmates wanted more physical evidence of our efforts. I had friends who’d trained as historians, literary scholars, and philosophers who were now shoeing horses, wiring houses, and installing toilets. There’d been no suicides so far.

When I finished the first read of this story, I thought, “Well, gee, this one didn’t go anywhere, did it.” That’s true; it’s more of an extended monologue than a narrative. Dad, kicked out by Mom, visits Son; Dad loses the weight required to return home; instead of returning home-home, he is returning to a hotel near home, as if on a trial basis. But it did go somewhere, just not in a plotwise direction.

I kept trying to link this to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” but that doesn’t quite work. It is the general idea, though: two people who make a life out of torturing each other, and wouldn’t have it any other way. It’d be perfect, if it weren’t for the kid they’d screwed up.

Throughout, the son insists he’s not that damaged.

I like to be tired. In some ways, that’s the point of what I do. I don’t want to be thinking when I go to bed, or, if there is some residue from the day, I wanted to drain out and precipitate me into nothingness. I’ve always enjoyed to the idea of nonexistence. I view pets with extraordinary suspicion: we need to stay out of their lives.… It’s not that there’s anything wrong with my ability to communicate: I have a cell phone, but I only use it to call out.

I have mixed feelings about this, perhaps because in many ways I am this guy, right down to insisting my family wasn’t dysfunctional (and truth is my family isn’t anywhere near the craziness of the family in the story). I’ve been a lot happier since I gave up on trying to be “normal.” The internet helps me tremendously with this: I can be part of the world in a way I can handle. Where in “real” life I alternate between insecure reticence and inarticulate nonsense, when given time to form thoughts without someone waiting for me to hold up my end of the conversation (and without worrying about whether I’m making a strange face or I look like a bag lady or I’m in the way of someone more worthy of taking up space and time), I do ok. I said not so long ago that I wasn’t cut out for real time; neither was I cut out for real people. I do fine with virtual people, though. A lot of people think that doesn’t count. Maybe not. But for people like me and this narrator, we’ve found a way to live with ourselves that works for us. It may be your idea of hell. That’s fine; your life is our idea of hell, too, but we wouldn’t dream of telling you to go get yourself some therapy to fix it.

Thomas McGuane: “Stars” from TNY, 6/24/13

TNY Art by Chris Steele-Perkins

TNY Art by Chris Steele-Perkins

The bubbles in the plunge pool reminded her of the stars she had fallen in love with so long ago, years before she became an astronomer and began to spend her days analyzing solar data…. The stars were no longer a mystery to her; these bubbles would have to do.

The first time I read this story through, it scared me to death. I’d just gone off on the building super, and even as I exploded, I realized I was over the edge; yet I couldn’t stop. After, when I’d apologized (it’s so much easier to just not blow up in the first place), and I read the story for the second time to grab quotes, I found it hilarious. I’m pretty sure that’s more about me than about the story. But I’m probably not the one to judge.

Jessica is an astronomer who no longer loves the stars. Now she’s into wolves. There’s a symbol shift you can hang your hat on, y’think? Following an encounter in the woods with a trapper who’s about to shoot a wolf, she gets angrier and angrier, and it comes out more and more sideways. She brakes to annoy a tailgater, knowing the law favors her. She’s astonishingly rude to her sort-of-boyfriend’s father, criticizing his liquor supply and refusing to show polite interest in his fishing pole collection. She regrets that last later, but by then, “… it was too late now to pour love on the fishing poles.” She sees an anger specialist, and finds herself annoyed by his trivial shortcomings.

“Honey, can’t you hear those chainsaws coming?”

I love Jessica. She’s mad as hell, and she’s not taking it any more. I get truly worried about my amusement when I read words like “misanthrope” at The Mookse and the Gripes or “not very likeable” at Perpetual Folly. Make her an older man and change the writing just a smidge, and she could be a loveable curmudgeon. Instead she’s a “douche-cannon.”

Jessica kept walking into winter.

In his Page-Turner interview, McGuane says: “If slavery is the primal sin of Southern literature, the war on nature is the sin of the West. Jessica has experienced this sin point blank, has absorbed its impact, and is beginning to display its consequences, which become scars and are enduring.” I think he’s made that point very well in his story. Instead of a raisin in the sun, Jessica is a star who might have gone dark, but instead, super-novas. It’s interesting he chose to limit this to the American West, when in fact it’s a larger problem. You think Jessica’s a bitch – she’s nothing compared to Mother Nature, the ultimate douche-cannon who always gets the last word.

Thomas McGuane: “The Casserole” from The New Yorker, 9/10/12

New Yorker Art by Victo Ngai

New Yorker Art by Victo Ngai

While we crossed, my wife stood on the ferry deck, looking out at the river, smiling and sighing at the swallows circling the current. I told her that they were just after the bugs. She said she understood that, but they looked beautiful whatever they were doing, all right? I’ve long had trouble with people picking out some detail of the landscape and pretending it’s the whole story, as though, in this case, the blue light around those speeding birds could do anything to mask the desolation of the country north of the river, a land I traverse holding my nose.

I don’t think it’s by accident that Victo Ngai chose this paragraph to create the illustration for this story. It pretty much captures the narrator, a man who sees the world in one way, and figures everyone else either sees it the same way, or is just plain wrong.

It’s a very short story about a man and his wife visiting her parents’ ranch on the occasion of their 25th anniversary. It’s also not by accident that the story is told in first person from the man’s point of view; it’s really the only point of view that exists for him. The couple doesn’t talk much on the drive, but he narrates explanations of everything from their childlessness (“There were children everywhere, and we saw no reason to start our own brand. Young couples plunge into parenthood and about half the time they end up with some ghastly problem on their hands”), to their lack of interest in inheriting the ranch (“But even if my wife had had siblings she would not have been part of this sort of trouble, as she had never – at least, not since adolescence – wanted to pursue ranch life, rural life, agricultural life…. [s]he was very attached to the land; she just didn’t want to own it or do anything with it. Either did I”) to the hard, sad life of her parents (“The ranch was going to eat them alive, and they knew it. The fences would fall down; the cows would get out; the neighbors, old friends, would start to think of them as a problem”). And he assures us: “Once across this river, we’d be heading for a very sad story.” He doesn’t know the half of it.

He does recognize some difference of opinion, mostly in the area of finances:

The thing was that we were quite poor. We were both grade-school teachers, and owning a house had been the extent of our indulgences. We loved our house and our work and were suitably grateful for both, though Ellie felt that if I hadn’t been so hell-bent on retiring the mortgage we might have done a few more things for fun.

What was becoming a comfortable nest egg would have disappeared in jaunts to Belize or some other place, where Ellie could show more of the body she was so proud of to anyone and everyone.… She was going to have to settle for wiggling her butt in the school corridors until the inevitable day when the damn thing sagged.

That’s an interesting writer’s choice. If McGuane had made him completely tone-deaf to his wife, I don’t think the story would have the same pull; his character would be a caricature. So we’re left to wonder, does he not remember his wife’s disagreement on certain issues, or did she stop disagreeing with him a long time ago after seeing it did no good? Is his refusal to go to Belize out of jealousy (not wanting other men to see her butt on clear display at the beach) or just for the petty meanness of refusing her something and attaching a plausible reason to it? For that matter, why is it impossible that they did in fact agree on children and the ranch? I’m trying to figure that out; I feel a distinct implication that his speaking for her is more than the routine requirements of first-person narration, that he’s using the “domineering we” (sort of like a more domestic “royal we”) but I can’t pinpoint anything specific to indicate that.

I find the illustration paragraph especially significant because of his comment about people picking a detail of the landscape the focus on. When the twist finally comes, he focuses on ridiculous details: “What kind of idiot puts a casserole in a lunch pail?” This only echoes the bigger issue of his focus on his point of view, what he thinks, rather than what’s actually going on. It’s also pretty cool that in his Page-Turner interview, McGuane tells Deborah Treisman, “I’m a big fan of synecdoche!” I’m just as big a fan of clever, and there’s no escaping that the title plays on that particular figure of speech.

It’s a very simple story, and you can see the end coming miles away, but it’s very well done nonetheless, not for the surprise of the twist, but for the astute, if brief, behavioral portrait of the character’s narcissism. In this way it reminds me a bit of “The Widow’s Cruse,” another story about a man who felt he knew a woman’s mind, and found out, to his surprise, that he was wrong.

This feels like the most intricate McGuane story I’ve read so far. Then again, maybe I’m just getting better at reading.

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.

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?”

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

Art: "Good Samaritan" by He Qi

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?