Thomas McGuane: “The Good Samaritan”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  Thomas McGuane’s “The Good Samaritan” was first published in The New Yorker‘s April 25, 2011, issue.

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I don’t know much about Thomas McGuane.  His most recent novel is Driving the Rim, a book set in Montana; here is a quick sentence from the Publishers Weeklyr eview: “Berl Pickett is a smalltown doctor whose ill-advised decision to try to cover up an old friend’s suicide attempt leads to dire consequences when she later dies from her injuries: his clinic privileges are suspended and he faces a possible criminal negligence charge.”  For whatever reason, since I moved away from the Rocky Mountain west, I’m much more interested in books set in that region.  It helps that the books have been superb, particularly Maile Meloy’s books of short stories and Larry Watson’s Montana 1948.  So it looks like McGuane has a backlist I’ll be checking out: Some HorsesNinety-Two in the Shade, Gallatin Canyon,  Nothing but Blue Skies, and The Longest Silence: A Life in Fishing, among others.  And “The Good Samaritan” leads me to believe going through McGuane’s books will be well worth my time.

“The Good Samaritan” is also set in Montana.  Szabo is a divorcee who has a day job at an office but rushes home at night to take care of a ranch, “a word that was now widely abused by developers.  He preferred to call it his property, or ‘the property’ . . .”  He devotes all his time to it:  “Sometimes he was so eager to get started that he let his car running.”  It’s enough to make him seem crazy; after all, “[h]is activity on the property, which had led, over the years, to arthroscopic surgery on his left knee, one vertebral fusion, and mild hearing loss, thanks to his diesel tractor, yielded very little income at all and some years not even that — a fact that he did not care to dwell on.”  But, as McGuane soon says, “Szabo was not nuts.  He had long understood that he needed to do something with his hands to compensate for the work that he did indoors, and it was not going to be golf or woodworking.”

One evening, Szabo is in such a hurry to mount his beloved John Deere tractor that he had an accident:

Here his foot slid off the step, leaving him briefly dangling from the handhold.  A searing pain informed him that he had done something awful to his shoulder.  Releasing his grip, he fell to the driveway in a heap.  The usually ambrosial smell of tractor fuel repelled him, and the towering green shape above him now seemed reproachful.

This is just the beginning of this story that takes us all over the place.  We learn what Szabo does in his daytime work when he has to call in to his assistant, Melinda, to ask her to find him some help.  She certainly thinks he needs help at work, but he means on the property; he hates to admit it, but he needs some help on the property — for a short time.  After a few interviews with some shady characters, Melinda thinks she’s found the perfect fit when she meets Barney:

He told Melinda that he was extremely well educated but “identified with the workingman” and thought a month or so in Szabo’s bunkhouse would do him a world of good.

I’m going to stop there.  There’s no sense in spoiling the story by disclosing a few of the details of Szabo’s life that need dealt with.  Needless to say, I recommend it, even if the ending did leave me a bit befuddled (I’m sure that was part of the point).

8 thoughts on “Thomas McGuane: “The Good Samaritan””

  1. Betsy says:

    In this week’s Book Bench interview with D. Treisman, McGuane remarks, “I remember feeling when I started ‘Driving the Rim’ that serious fiction had gotten entirely too gloomy.” The whole interview is actually really worth reading, but it was this sentence that spoke to me about the story I’d just read.

    “The Good Samaritan” deals with some serious topics, full worthy of gloom, but McGuane deftly gets his serious points across with a story that is, as Trevor says, “all over the place.” The whole thing has a Mark Twain feel that lets the seriousness percolate through the wry language and entertaining twists. It’s a yarn whose full developments only gradually dawn on you (a part of the pleasure). I liked, though, how the story made me feel. McGuane has a basic respect for people, so while he’s funny, he’s not mocking, and while he’s serious, he’s not deadly.

    And the story leaves you with a couple of little mysteries – very tantalizing.

    Glad you gave us the backlist, Trevor. This is a terrific writer.

  2. Peggy says:

    At first I thought this might be an example of an “unreliable narrator” but later decided he was more of a “clueless narrator” (resulting in a certain unreliability). Did anybody else have suspicions of how the story would turn out? There were certainly lots of clues! (even Barney’s “good reference” in retrospect seems suspicious) Just started a NY subscription and am looking forward to your comments on the short stories. Peg

  3. Betsy says:

    Peggy, I hope you stay on board. It is really interesting to commit to forming a cohesive opinion about one story once a week. And that also makes you read Trevor’s opinions keenly, not to mention also reading the differing opinions of his many correspondents just as keenly. So the exercise makes the fiction exceptionally alive. One other thing — these stories are generally new ones that have not yet been written about. So it’s exciting to take a stand – even if only to discover later you’re mistaken. It’s a bit of a blank slate, and that enlivens the whole thing even more. Fun to think about writing some of the first words about a story. It’s a nice tightwire.

    I thought I had “The Good Samaritan” nailed half way through, but McGuane was just messing with me. I had it only halfway nailed. The half I didn’t get was of course the more important half.

    While the story looks for a while like it’s going to be about a simple theft of a physical object, it turns out to be more about breaking into a man’s soul, or, more mundanely put, a kind of intervention. Once broken into, Szabo is no longer left to his paralysis and his misunderstanding of his paralysis.

    Barney, the hired man, plays the role of a shadow self, saying and doing very direct (rude) things that will ultimately change Szabo’s life, while Szabo says and does as little as possible (while thinking that he is accomplishing a lot, harvesting his perfect alfalfa.)

    At the same time, the story kindly admits that some situations do paralyze us: a terrible divorce, a child in jail, new developments that intensify any separation from our children we already feel. At those times, most of us have very few, if any, truly reliable people to give us a kickstart in the right direction. What if we were to have a kind of tough love twin (a clod like Barney) who could act up when we need a swift kick? What a relief that would be. I get the feeling that the ending which Barney has set in motion is only a beginning – but while iffy as to success, that it has the best possibility of satisfaction. For one thing, at least Szabo will know he tried. Maybe, having made a stab at it, he will find out gradually what works and what doesn’t. But at his death, which would he rather? Having produced a perfect alfalfa bale? Or having made a stab at helping his son? Even if it fails? So what Barney really ends up stealing is a man’s commitment to being on the sidelines of his own life.

    It’s a relief just to contemplate the possibility of a Barney appearing in one’s life…what he might need to straighten out…how he would choose to go about it.

    The story is ambiguously fantastic, and it treads deliciously along the line that divides the real from the impossible: all of which intensifies the pleasure of the yarn.

    As for who Szabo’s Barney actually is and whether he could actually exist – well – that’s at the heart of the enjoyment. Oh, and the physical thing that gets stolen? How is that possibly a gift and not a theft? More enjoyment.

    Now, McGuane has set out to be light on a difficult topic. There are among us people who need only John Edgar Wideman’s terrible visions from the abyss of having a brother or son in jail. And they are right. And there are those of us who need McGuane’s humor to even think about the possibility of a brother or son in jail. And there are those of us who have a kind of double vision: we need both, the tragic vision and the comic, depending on the day, depending on the decade, depending on our strength.

  4. Trevor says:

    Peggy, I completely agree with Betsy — welcome! It is a lot of fun, even when the fiction isn’t at its best.

    Betsy, I’m sorry I’ve been so unresponsive lately; it’s been incredibly busy around these parts. As always, great insights. Let me know if you go to some more McGuane fiction any time soon. I’d love to, but I’m not sure when I’ll get to it.

  5. Betsy says:

    Trevor, I just read and really enjoyed McGuane’s “Gallatin Canyon” – a collection of 10 short stories published in 2006, half of which had been previously published in the New Yorker. Although he is known for living in Montana, the settings for these stories vary from Montana to Michigan to Florida to Massachusetts and the Pacific Northwest. And while he is at home with western ranch life, these stories also range to rain forest hiking, night skating on a great lake, and a lengthy solo sail in the Gulf of Mexico.

    Almost all of these stories contemplate addiction, its denials and its self-delusions, but each story is a surprise. People are caught at various ages and stages of sobriety and self-delusion, but McGuane’s attention to the integrity of the characters and to clarity make each story fresh. I remember the force of the title story from when it appeared in the New Yorker quite a few years ago, but my favorite is “The Refugee”, which unfolds an alcoholic’s gradual journey toward awareness within the framework of a very dangerous solo sail in the Gulf of Mexico (a little reminiscent of Old Man and the Sea – but with a McGuane twist).

    To a degree, McGuane uses alcoholism and addiction as devices to explore the degree to which any of us, addicted or sober, hide the truth from ourselves, and the layers we have to traverse to get to the truth of the matter of our own lives. Conveying the motion of dawning awareness seems to be his actual writerly goal. These are great stories. I think I want to give “Driving the Rim” a look-see.

  6. Aaron says:

    Yeah, I enjoyed this one a lot — and I don’t normally like the plain-spoken, semi-rustic fiction such as this. Not sure I’m ready to pick up the backlist (though Betsy’s words are certainly encouraging), but I liked the depth McGuane found, not just in morality but in the links between generations and families. I take Barney at face-value — an actual con-man with a heart of gold, like the guy in The Rainmaker — because of the way he’s set in opposition to our “hero” Szabo. Barney may be a criminal to some (though he doesn’t hurt anyone, and he steals the painting only after getting it insured), but he arguably does more good in the story than Szabo, which sort of makes you reconsider what makes a person good in the first place: intentions or actions.

  7. Ken says:

    After several weeks of poor fiction, it’s nice to be in the hands of a veteran who knows what he’s doing and is not either rubbing your face in nastiness or showing off to hide emptiness. This was a very complex character study and also a nice example of slowly revealing the main character’s faults and imperfections in a subtle and non-judgmental way. I agree with those above that McGuane is ironic but not condescending. Szabo is increasingly revealed as pretentious, clueless and incompetent and yet he is capable of change and the end is nicely, tentatively hopeful. There are many wonderful sentences and great descriptive passages. I’ve enjoyed previous McGuane stories as well but this was a needed respite from dreck.

  8. Trevor says:

    I haven’t minded the stories as much as you, Ken, but I agree completely — this story was refreshing.

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