Saturday, August 20, 2016
McGuane'e characters - men of a certain type
The protagonist in Tom McGuane's story in the current New Yorker, Papayas, typifies a McGuane character: man in late middle age, reasonably prosperous in some sort of business field - in this case, writing marine insurance; others are often men in real estate - generally living in a remote community being transformed by tourism and escapism, in this case Key West but many other stories in Montana, with land prices rising thanks to 2nd (or 3rd) homes of the entertainment elite, generally unattached (widowed, divorced, children if any living afar) - similar in many ways to Richard Ford characters, but with rougher edges, generally not well educated, though smart in ways beyond book-smart. Papayas tells a life story in 2 phases: at the outset we meet the narrator and his friend, one of his few we gather, a Cuban-immigrant doctor, whom he visits regular more for conversation than for medical care. Then we "flash back" and we see the narrator in his ragged youth - abandoned on a beach in the Bahamas (robbed of everything including his boat following a night of debauchery) and taken in by a native woman who basically makes him her slave laborer, shoveling guano and dumping it as fertilizer on her papaya trees (pretty dangerous work, though there's no recognition of this in the story). After a period of this servitude, which he doesn't mind especially as his life is adrift, the woman, Angela, brings him to a boat, which will transport him back to Florida; the doctor (and his wife) turn out to be fellow passengers, paying a lot of $ to be smuggled from Cuba to the U.S. So that's how their friendship formed - and in the process of telling the story we learn about the formation of an entire personality, self-reliant, independent, grateful. McGuane has built a huge opus of short stories that cover similar ground - this is one of the strongest.