"The Good Samaritan" by Thomas McGuane Originally published in the April 25, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
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 Horses, Ninety-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).