Thomas McGuane: “A Prairie Girl”

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 “A Prairie Girl” was originally published in the February 27, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.

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I’ve been running behind on my New Yorker reading lately.  Last night I made the goal (easy, since I have today off) to read the story in the morning, whatever it be.  I was thrilled, then, that it was a story by Thomas McGuane, who I’ve been drawn to over the past years.  His stories have a mixture of seriousness and humor, usually set in Montana or somewhere else in the American West, and this calls to me.  I was also happy to see that the story was very short.

Though short, “A Prairie Girl” covers a lot of ground.  It opens, I’m assuming, sometime in the last couple of decades of the twentieth century:

When the old brothel — known as the Butt Hut — closed down, years ago, the house it had occupied was advertised in the paper: “Home on the river: eight bedrooms, eight baths, no kitchen.  Changing times force sale.”

The omniscient plural first-person narrator (quite a feat, if you can do it — it worked fine here; there is even a reference to the townspeople making up a fine Greek chorus) takes us comically through the history of the town by way of the brothel, presenting a nice local scene:

Who were they?  Some were professionals from as far away as New Orleans and St. Louis.  A surprising number were country schoolteachers, off for the summer.  Some, from around the state, worked a day or two a week, but were otherwise embedded in conventional lives.  When one of them married a local, the couple usually moved away, and over time our town lost a good many useful men — cowboys, carpenters, electricians.  This pattern seemed to land most heavily on our tradespeople and worked a subtle hardship on the community.  But it was supposed by the pious to be a sacrifice for the greater good.

When the brothel closed, all of the girls leave town save one, Mary Elizabeth Foley.  She attended the Lutheran church and when a woman (her future mother-in-law) asked her where she was from, she said, “What business is it of yours?”  McGuane goes for more humor: “Where was the meekness appropriate to a woman with her past?  It was outrageous.  From then on, the energy that ought to have been spent on listening to the service was dedicated to beaming malice at Mary Elizabeth Foley.”

Mary Elizabeth Foley is an ambitious woman, and she eventually weds — because she truly does love him and he loves her — Arnold, a gay man, the son of the president of the local bank.  After all, “[s]he had been trained to accept the privacy of every dream world.”

The story moves quickly through their lives, much like an Alice Munro story.  It says something for the story and its ambiguities that I wanted more, quite a bit more.  I’m still trying to work out if that is a fault in an otherwise interesting story about the loving (though duplicitous) relationship between a former prostitute and a gay man in a tiny, judgmental community, but one where time can burnish faults.  Where in a Munro story the clipped passage of time is part of the theme, I’m not sure it was here, and I wanted more room for the characters to develop.

Still, a nice story to get me back to reading The New Yorker fiction each week.

13 thoughts on “Thomas McGuane: “A Prairie Girl””

  1. Shelley says:

    If you’re behind in The New Yorker, the piece on Rowan the plagiarist is of interest, too.

    “Plagiarism” is from a Latin word meaning “kidnapper.”

  2. Aaron says:

    Lot of good pieces in the New Yorker, lately. I thought the one about the pianist working on recording Charles Ives’s “Concord” sonata was a brilliant piece about the creative process in general, as relevant to writers and musicians, and probably actors and other artists, too.

  3. Jon says:

    I agree this was a nice story. Not sure if it’s something I’ll keep coming back to, but enjoyable. The “throw her under the bus” line was great and thought it served a larger purpose of hinting at how the story could have gone off in a bunch of sensationalist directions (I started wondering whether Mary murdered the father), but the very skilled and restrained writing.

  4. Roger says:

    I almost always read the short stories in The New Yorker, hopefully to enjoy them but at the very least to see what the magazine is interested in publishing. The narrative voice in this one — often faraway, aloof, and even uncaring — made this story a chore for me to finish. It felt like the narrator (and, by extension, the author) took delight at sending up the intolerant Mrs. Tanner, who was really more a type than a character. I didn’t find any heart here for anyone, including Mary and Arnold. At most, this seemed like a morality play in which the former prostitute and her gay husband are briefly sketched (really, they are just types, too) and then allowed to shed their victim status and become powerful. The financial crisis even gets a kind of cameo, playing its part predictably and mechanically. (So the bank that repossessed Mary’s childhood home and farm equipment was bad, right? As was “the President of the United States” who had “told them” to “borrow, borrow, borrow?” Do tell.)

    I’ll look forward to something better next week!

  5. Trevor says:

    Interesting reaction, Roger. Always interesting to have someone respond to a piece in quite the opposite manner (not that I think this was a superb piece, but I did enjoy it). I do see what you mean by the characters coming off as types, but I took that more as the views of that first-person plural narrator who was offering judgment as well as narration. Still, not sure that should redeem the story for anyone. I do think your comments on the financial crisis are a bit off — those viewpoints are predictable and mechanical but that doesn’t mean the author is the one making the judgments: it’s the characters. This was never going to be a nuanced piece about banks and debt, and no one who has lost to a bank is going to look on that bank as anything but evil. Therefore, those predictable criticisms actually come off as real.

    But, yes, something better next week!

  6. Jon says:

    I also find Roger’s comments helpful and interesting. I can imagine myself having the same reactions, but, for whatever reasons, the other positive aspects of the story outweighed them (though the “President of the U.S.” line did stick out for me as very awkward, and raised issues (e.g., personal responsibility) that weren’t really part of the story.)

    I suppose if there was something like an offhand mention of Arnold being unable to marry his California lover that would have tipped the scales for me into seeing this as only a morality play.

  7. Jon says:

    … On second thought, I wonder if the personal responsibility issues raised by Mary’s family blindly borrowing because that’s what they were “told” to do is meant as a counterpoint to Mary taking her fate into her own hands.

  8. jerry says:

    I thought it an excellent story and have enjoyed all the pieces by McGuane in the last year. This reminds me a bit of wyoming stories Annie Proulx that TNY used to run.

    Loved the ending to the story.

  9. Aaron says:

    I’m glad to find that I’m not alone in once again wishing for something more in a McGuane story. He’s a talented writer, well-capable of evoking the land he’s familiar with, but in this particular case, I don’t really feel as if I was exposed to anything new, and all of the things I liked felt thrust upon me, to the point at which I almost want to dislike them on principle.

    Perhaps this is once more the curse of being a New Yorker Writer, in which it’s generally easier to get your work accepted, and therefore there’s less incentive to continue polishing and editing and really refining to that crystalline point. There are no surprises in this story, and the couple I’d like to know more about — Mary Elizabeth and her gay husband Arnold — is rushed through, and I’m not even entirely sure why, given that I still don’t know what the point of the entire story was, short of being a slice of life. (You compare him to Munro, but I’ve always found Munro to be capable of accomplishing much more than the mere chronicling of a span of years in one’s life.)

    In any case, more here for those interested: http://bit.ly/A2LiXJ

  10. Trevor says:

    You compare him to Munro, but I’ve always found Munro to be capable of accomplishing much more than the mere chronicling of a span of years in one’s life.

    Ah, but I did so to make the same (or, at least, similar) distinction you did. I did enjoy the story, but I think I came to the same conclusion as you: that it is simply a slice of life, pleasantly presented, and not much more. Sometimes that would annoy me, but I found myself thinking of the main relationship and trying to figure out all that is not said in the story, and that has paid off, leaving me to wonder what I might uncover in my as yet unattempted second read of the story.

  11. Ken says:

    I agree with Aaron (this time). I have enjoyed many of McGuane’s stories and I enjoyed this one but thought it was too rushed and certainly fails in the ways that a Munro story succeeds. I could barely get a handle on the narrative events before more of them were piling up. I enjoyed the narrative voice and would agree it’s not meant to be taken as McGuane’s or to be in any way authoritative. I also found this compelling enough but it did lack polish, focus, something subtextual, something, not sure what.

  12. Lisa says:

    This is a lovely piece. Mary was a sympathetic character. I found it mesmerizing.

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