"The House on Sand Creek"
by Thomas McGuane
Originally published in the October 3, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
I’m very excited about this one and will be posting my thoughts soon. Happy to hear from others in the meantime.
Tags: 2011 New Yorker Fiction
I admire Thomas McGuane’s writing. I enjoy its economy, its wicked humor, and its seriousness. Really, to me that’s the best kind – wicked serious humor. Mark Twain kind of stuff – where the story’s entertaining, and you laugh out loud, but you can always feel the author’s attitude at your elbow.
“The House on Sand Creek” has as its narrator a real estate lawyer with no clients, living in these precarious times as he does, living in a house in rural Montana he’d foolishly acquired “sight unseen”. He was married to Monika whom he also could only have acquired (in some way or other) sight unseen, given how badly she treats him. Around these two, life, punctuated by impulses, just kind of happens. But as the story unwinds, McGuane makes you laugh and you lurch on with them.
“The feeling came back to me…that I was doomed in life to take a lot of shit and make weak jokes in response,” the husband says haplessly. In addition, there’s a local guy named Bob who has always been eccentric, and there is Monika’s second husband, the Nigerian neurosurgeon. Oh – and then there is Karel, the baby.
The feckless parents – all three of them – have pretty much forgotten what it means to be a parent. Bob – well, Bob, the friend, the outsider, the holy fool, is open to finding out, and Karel adores him.
About that feeling of the author at your elbow: McGuane comments about that baby that he “was always drawn to someone [like Bob] who looked straight at him as though making a delightful discovery.” When Bob, the babysitter, would leave Karel with his parents, Karel would turn into a “rigid little body as he wailed and reached frantically in the direction of Bob’s departure”, Bob having become, by default, the real parent.
Somehow, this is a grandparent’s cautionary tale. When you’re a grandparent, you grasp the singular momentariness of life. You want to tell people about this. But how?
What McGuane’s done here is he’s gone the distance. He’s written a wicked sharp little portrait of a set of parents who lack the brains and heart they were born with. He skewers them. Given how funny McGuane is, how arch, he makes us pay very close attention to how careless some parents (actually many of us, at one time or another) can be.
Some time back, the New Yorker ran McGuane’s “The Good Samaritan” in which a feckless guy is rescued by a kind of an angel, and “The House on Sand Creek” is in the same vein. This is very pleasurable reading – in which selfishness gets its come-uppance, and, after a while, innocents are saved, and the reader has quite a few real laughs at the expense of some people behaving very badly.
McGuane actually refers to Twain, having Monika casually say that Bob has lit out for the territory, when Bob absconds with Karel. What McGuane means, I think, is that Bob has lit out for the territory where life is treasured and honored as if it were “a delightful discovery”.
What a great story: the narrator and Monika being the latest version of the duke and the dauphin, and Karel and Bob – they are the true princes, if only you see the light.
Hi Betsy, I did read this one today and should have my thoughts up soon. Tonight, though, my wife and I are in the hospital because our third son was born this evening :). What a story to read on such a day!
I do imagine a lot of people will really dislike this story since it is narrated by the awful father, and his voice is terrible to behold, but I agree that it is another good offering.
Congratulations, Trevor! I hope your wife and the baby are doing very well. What lovely news! Mr. McGuane’s words fit so well here – that we wish everyone will look straight at this baby as though making a delightful discovery!
Congratulations, Trevor: All the best wishes to you and your family!
First of all congrats Trevor!
I really enjoyed this story and it reminded me in ways of some of Annie Proulx’s stories that have appeared in TNY.
Made me laugh out loud in several spots and that is rare for any fiction. I esp like the part of holding his wallet in the air with one hand and pointing at his crotch with the other LOL.
You can view the full review here. My thought, and this may be harsh, is so what? The story is funny, but what else is it? I enjoyed the characters, the writing was fine, it was funny, but I didn’t come away with anything. Once the joke is made it’s time to move on.
Tim, this must be a matter of taste. The humor in this story suited me. The mistreatment of children is usually treated with the utter seriousness it deserves, but these accounts are so scary they can be easily put down or avoided. Twain’s account of Pap trying to kill Huck, amid all the dry humor, is even more scary when it finally dawns on you, later, that he was actually trying to kill Huck. These people, McGuane’s people, are murderous in their own way, and remind me, in their own way, of my own vanities, idlenesses and preoccupations. So that’s what stays with me. But I think that’s a matter of taste.
Thanks, Betsy. It probably does come down to a matter of taste.
So glad you replied, Tim. I forgot to tell you I read you review (for which you provided a link) and really enjoyed it.
I split the difference between Betsy and Tim. I definitely enjoyed this and laughed out loud also and I admire his craft and found this really enjoyable. Yet…it felt like perhaps a part of something larger. It’s ending didn’t feel conclusive. I did have a bit of the “so what” feeling although while reading it I was having a heck of a time. I’ve liked other stories by McGuane more.
I’m not sure when I’ll sit down to write my thoughts on this story, but I’m about where Ken is. I liked it and yet felt, perhaps unfairly compating it to McGuane’s own past work, that it was a bit light in the end. The skill to get to the end is in great display, though.
I also felt “so what” and story definitely wasn’t to my taste. The humor (and writing overall) felt clunky, strained, and stilted in a way.
Like Ken, I’ll split the difference. I didn’t like this as much McGuane’s last New Yorker piece, but I enjoyed the comic bits with Bob, and I thought that the narrative voice worked very well throughout the first three-quarters, before he lost the distance between what had happened (where his wit could be present) and the present (where his wit had passed). I also thought the conclusion was a bit rushed and insignificant: the African doctor, I assume, returns home? The two lovers get back together, even though having a child in the way was never really their problem? I don’t need a story to *tell* me something, but it sure helps to get a hint! (http://bit.ly/tT9LvJ)
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