Thomas McGuane: “A Prairie Girl”

02/27/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, February 27, 2012.

Not a bad story by any means, but I’ve the same feeling about this as I did about McGuane’s last New Yorker piece, “The House on Sand Creek”: so what? As the title implies, we’re going to learn about a prairie girl, with all the judgments that pertain to such a descriptor, and as McGuane usually does, he’s going to attempt to upend our expectations. So it is that we are initially introduced to Mary Elizabeth Foley’s former occupation — as the only resident of the Butt Hut brothel to remain after the death of the madam and the subsequent shuttering of the sex-house — and only at the very end of the story told that she grew up on a ranch, which she is now revisiting with her grown son, Peter. Between those two sections, McGuane shows us a strong, confident woman, unafraid to be segregated to her own pew at the local church, scorned by the “beaming malice” of those Good Christian Folk around her, a woman unwilling to compromise her own past or image to anybody. Mary Elizabeth has plans, and those plans allow her to rope in Arnold, a gay man whose parents own the local bank. (We’ll also learn, later, that her parent’s ranch was also foreclosed upon, but don’t mistake this for a revenge story.) Although the two genuinely love one another — sans sex — Arnold eventually divorces her to pursue his true love out in neighboring California, and simply commutes back and forth to visit with his son, who is actually (well, presumably — Mary Elizabeth is as tight-lipped about her past to McGuane-as-author as she is to anyone else) the son of a Mexican immigrant from the loan-officer school that she trained at post-brothel.

Which leads me back to my opening statement and concern for this tale: so what? McGuane covers a lot of time and territory, and I’ll be the first to admit that he writes of some relationships that I’ve not read about before, but he doesn’t dwell on nor really develop them. He seems always in such a rush to get to the next thing that the events remain isolated and unconnected, so there’s no sense of the story building to anything, merely a well-described litany of occurrences. Here’s an example of one of the meaningless mini-arcs in the story: Mrs. Tanner, Mary Elizabeth’s mother-in-law, whom she eventually wrests control of the bank from, is a cosmetically concerned alpha woman, the hen who can’t stop pecking at the flaws of others, even while Mary Elizabeth is in labor. At first, Arnold defends her out of familial duties; later, as she approaches dementia, it’s Mary Elizabeth who protects her, having grown into a whole new set of morals (she once entertained the thought of literally throwing her under the bus); ultimately, it is Arnold who commits her to a home, having finally chosen the man in his life (who he no longer wants to hear his mother call a “house boy”) over the women he loves. As you can see, these events show how the characters have changed over time, but at the same time, this is all they show, and because of the story’s brevity, it isn’t subtly suggested, it’s most often thrust upon us as the only possible conclusion. It’s one of those intellectual traps a writer falls into, in which the reader thinks, “There must be a reason why we’ve been given all these plot points on the side, the author must want us to think [x].” That’s not natural, it’s storytelling eugenics, in which only the most essential traits have been bred out, to the point of uniformity and a marked lack of surprise.

McGuane understands the environment in which he writes, a generally mid-western or country-ish vibe in the vein of Proulx or a gentler McCarthy; perhaps my largest issue with this story, then, is that he doesn’t really concern himself with the setting. Rather than writing from a position of strength, in which he could show me things I’ve never dreamed of before, as in, say, Rick Bass’s “The Hermit’s Story,” he instead describes characters that are familiar to me, with the slight exception of their slighter interactions with one another (slight because these, too, aren’t the emphasis of his work, given the pace at which he rips through the day-to-day). And yet I find myself needing to once again defend McGuane’s work from my own nonchalant reaction to it: there’s nothing unbelievable here, nothing badly written. I guess I’m just always looking for more of a personal connection.

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