Thomas McGuane: “The House on Sand Creek”

11/07/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, October 3, 2011.

McGuane has a very direct and easy-going way of writing. You can tell he doesn’t waste time from the title right down to the opener:

When Monika and I were first married, we rented a house on Sand Creek, sight unseen, because Monika wanted to live in the country and nothing else was available within reach of my office in town.

There are a bunch of hints there at what will be coming: (1) Monika and the narrator will get married again, or something will happen to their marriage; (2) the house will not be exactly what they expect; and (3) this is a story about clashes and compromises. And indeed, that’s what we get, along with a wink and a nod from the author after Monika returns to Bosnia-Herzegovina: “I am aware that my ability to wittily point things out like this, and to describe the house the way I am describing it, has a lot to do with the fact that Monika left soon after we’d moved in.” As it turns out, although the house is a genuine “two bedrooms and two baths, near a quiet grove of aspens,” the previous owners — before the bank repossessed it — left it “an absolute horror. Skinned coyote carcasses were piled on the front step, and a dead horse hung from its halter where it had been tied to the porch.” Far from the palace that architectural-student Monika was expecting; she’d asked for country life, but hadn’t banked on getting “the Western lifestyle.”

Thanks to the choice of a fourth-wall-breaking first-person narrator, we’re cutting through his memories. He has a specific story to tell, and he cuts straight to the salient points, and once Monika’s out of the picture, he introduces the ornery-by-dint-of-loneliness neighbor, Bob: “I had always imagined cowboys, former and otherwise, to be laconic men, who, if they overcame their reluctance to speak at all, did so without much expression. Not Bob. Bob never shut up, and his facial movements had more in common with those of Soupy Sales than those of John Wayne.” Bob’s the sort of guy who’s respectful enough to wait ten minutes after you get home to drop in, but oblivious of when he’s overstayed his welcome. And yet, our narrator, who fells as if he “was doomed in life to take a lot of shit and make weak jokes in response,” winds up getting along with Bob: “something about him touched me.” Likewise, when Monika calls him a few years down the road, looking to return — along with Karel, the baby she’s had off her new African lover — he accepts: “I had been raised to think that loving your spouse was a requirement.

Although I’m not normally a fan of passive narrators, the self-deprecation helps, as does the aforementioned directness of everything. The fleet humor — particularly in the way Bob befriends and presents somewhat racist gifts to Karel, who is black (“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 teeth on it!’ Bob said.”) — also helps. As for the story itself, the expected clashes and unexpected resolutions: Bob kidnaps Karel, looking to take him out of the “hostile environment” he faced at home. This leads Monika to ask the boy’s father to visit from overseas, which is somewhat reassuring to the narrator, who finds that Olatunde is far from the African warrior Monika made him out to be: “A small, precise man with a slightly receding hariline and a friendly but crisp manner.”

But it’s in the conclusion that McGuane and company get tangled up, for as his narrator reaches the present, there’s less and less wry reflecting to be done, and things only get more and more sped up and condensed. The result feels artificial, with Dr. Olatunde presumably returning home and Monika and the narrator rehiring Bob to be the babysitter so that they can get the room they need “to work things out.” We know enough about these people to assume that they’ll probably remain at odds, but that the narrator will continue to cave, in which sense the story is really about Bob, and the way in which this man, who is seen in the local vernacular as “a bubble and half off plumb,” manages to find happiness in an innocent child. But that’s not exactly the story promised by the title, the introduction, or the time we spend with the narrator and his wife, so for all the enjoyment of the writing and the ride, I’ve the sense that this story could — and should — do more.

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