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 “Weight Watchers” was originally published in the November 4, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.

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Trevor

I love Thomas McGuane, so I’m thrilled to see another story by him in this week’s issue. I’ll have thoughts up here soon.

Betsy

I love this story. Thomas McGuane is wry, dry, and dead serious. I love the combination.

The tone of this story works its effects on you sentence by sentence, and everything about this story is too good to waste. What I mean is, go no further here before you read this story.

“Weight Watchers” tells the story of a family in the blink of an eye; it’s oddly like some advice about how to deal with Thanksgiving: listen from a decent distance, with love, accept what you hear, with love, take a deep breath, notice the distance; repeat.

The narrator is a guy who’s educated but does construction, a guy who says, “I like to be tired. In some ways, that’s the point of what I do.” Part of the tone is in the measured acceptance and distance with which this man treats his completely dysfunctional, interesting mother and father, and part of what appeals about the tone is the way he treats his readers. This is a man who, considering his parents, should be curled up in a ball, incapacitated and howling.  Instead, he loves his work. Perhaps he has chosen to love his work.

I feel a certain kinship with this fellow: I just spent eight days at a comfortable hunting lodge in Maine and most of the hunters reminded me of this guy. Hunting woodcock in Maine is so difficult it boggles the mind and exhausts the body. The hunters there all put in an eight hour day trying to pry the woodcock loose from a forest so thick it must have been what the authors of Sleeping Beauty had in mind when they told about how her castle was girded with thorns. We all, known by just our first names, sat every night at a long communal table to eat a fine meal, which we inhaled before tumbling out of the hall to sleep the sleep of the just. My husband, being a prince, thinks I’m good company, so he takes me on his hunting trips where I take pictures. We both shoot birds, so to speak. This place we went has no cell phone coverage and not very much wifi. All of the other hunters were there solo, living out a temporary few days of life on the river, away, away, away, and tumbling into bed each night, like the narrator, too tired to think.

“I have a cell phone,” says the guy talking to us from Thomas McGuane’s wonderful story, “but I only use it to call out.”

With holidays coming up, this narrator’s very messy origins and his attitude toward it satisfy, much the way reading about the life of the Zen monk can sometimes satisfy. Reading it, you believe, even if only for a minute, that it can be done.

Not only do I like McGuane’s wild portrait of the American family, I like the way he lets us consider our recent heritage — the Vietnam War, the rust belt, the (necessary) return to basics.

I also liked so much the way I only noticed when I sat down to write that I didn’t know the narrator’s name — a fitting situation for a self-effacing man with a capacity for forgiveness.

“Weight Watchers” is about all the different kinds of weight a person could do well to shed — rage, the urge to whine, ineffectiveness, the media room, insomnia. But it’s also about if you’re able to shed those things — you might be talking about being a monk. Most of us are only able to do it a few minutes at a time.

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By |2013-10-28T12:01:10-04:00October 28th, 2013|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Thomas McGuane|11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. Michael October 29, 2013 at 8:56 pm

    Yeah, this is one of those simple yet not so simple stories that I love to read and think about. And on that level I liked it. I liked it’s simplicity. And I liked the narrator’s pragmatic view of life in general, whether he’s offering insights regarding his parents, and their marriage, or whether he’s offering insight about how he lives and why he chooses to live the way he does.

    There is a darkness there, however, I don’t think Betsy chooses to talk about as part of her wonderful commentary above. While I completely understand the references to a monkish life, and the references to living in a manner that is relatively isolated from emotional entanglements, there is the feeling that the narrator may be living somewhat of a skin milk existence (to borrow a recent turn of phrase from one of our Supreme Court justices). And while we, the readers, my enjoy dwelling down in the fat of the beverage, as it were, swimming in the midst of our various emotional entanglements, it is a bit sad, maybe even a bit tragic, that the narrator may never quite realize what he’s missing because of the choices he’s made and how he’s chosen to govern his life.

    It’s kind of like seeing and hopefully knowing an emotionally or mentally challenged person and appreciating them for who they are, and understanding that they are getting the most out of life that they possibly can, while also knowing that there are limitations to their understanding, depths of complexity and emotional fulfillment that they will most likely never truly feel or come to know for themselves.

  2. Betsy October 29, 2013 at 10:46 pm

    Hi Michael,

    I really enjoyed your commentary. You take the story beyond Monday morning into another layer. So glad to have read it.

  3. Michael October 30, 2013 at 11:28 am

    Thanks Betsy! Hopefully others will contribute to the discussion!

  4. Jan Wilkens November 5, 2013 at 1:47 am

    I too loved the story. Modern thinking tells us our family issues are in the past; to move on, to look forward. The narrator kept looking back AND forward. The ability to see both angles made the story so excellent. For generations of men who had wars to validate and affirm them as men, it leaves their male children feeling sort of ungrateful. The narrator did honest work or at least honest by his own moral calculations (using material from one job to satisfy another.)
    It also made me laugh out loud at parts.

  5. Betsy November 5, 2013 at 9:34 am

    Welcome, Jan. I second you on how funny he is. I like the way the humor is sharp and spot on. It makes the darker parts and the writer’s plaint behind it all the more alive.

  6. Ken November 5, 2013 at 4:24 pm

    I agree about the story’s ambivalence–that the character is both tolerably adjusted and also missing out on something–which I think is developed if one combines Betsy and Michael’s comments. I also found it very funny. My problem was that this seemed like it wanted to be more than a short story–there was so much back story in it that it almost felt like an excerpt from a novel–and I’d be glad to read far more about these characters.

  7. Madwoman in the Attic March 30, 2014 at 9:30 pm

    I have been thinking about the easy, casual connections the father enters into with people he meets, and the son’s determined isolation – it’s almost as if the situation of the loner, which the story implies is sad, is not so sad as the smarmy conviviality of his loser father. The son is loving and caring; the father is neither – and yet, the story ends on the phone that doesn’t ring. It’s a lovely complex contradiction.

  8. Betsy March 30, 2014 at 11:27 pm

    Hi Madwoman – so nice to hear your voice. This story is one of my favorites. Nice to have your sharp/on-the-money comments bring it all back.

  9. lotusgreen December 12, 2014 at 11:50 am

    I too liked this story very much, in particular the writing. Like a Japanese calligrapher, McGuane can tell a deeply rich story with just a couple of brushstrokes: Dee had spent forty years on a fencing crew and constantly massaged his knotty, damaged hands. Helen cooked at the high school, where generations of students had ridiculed her food. He does this over and over again.

    I was gratified with the uncommon portrait of a solitary happiness. In the morning, we went out to my job site, and I felt happy at once. Everything there seemed to buoy my spirits: the caked mud on the tires of a carpenter’s truck, the pleasant oily smell of tools, the cool wind coming through the sage on the hill, a screaming Skil saw already at work, the smell of newly cut two-by-fours, a nail gun going off in the basement, three thermoses on an unfinished ledge. Almost monk-like, yes, but fully sensual, engaged, and conscious.

    And yet I was left with a curiosity about something: had our happy fella sacrificed something to keep his parents together? Notice how he has steered our gaze away from himself so seamlessly that it is not until we try to write about him that we realize we don’t know his name. His very existence, he tells us, depended upon his mother’s need to keep her man faithful, and part of his job as their son was to never reveal what he regularly saw; he was, in a way, father to the man. He’s learned to notice the needs of others, and to enjoy fulfilling them. I could see that this would be a kind of delayed honeymoon house, and I wanted to get it right.

    He remains in a parental role with his parents even now, after he quieted down I heard him say plaintively—I think I heard this—that he no longer wished to live. I always looked forward to this particular locution, because it meant that they’d get back together soon., They’ve been claiming to be contemplating divorce for half of my lifetime, and I have found myself stuck in the odd trope of opposing the idea just to please them. He rescues them from the truth. I do care about them, but what they don’t know, and I would never have the heart to tell them, is that the idea of their no longer being a married couple bothers me not at all.

    “She’s the only one who understands me.”
    “No one understands you.”
    “Really? I think it’s you that nobody understands.”

    But do we? Maybe I’m wrong about —‘s motivations. But why does he lurch into his brief glance at himself immediately after noticing he may have embarrassed the Folsoms? If sacrifice is the role he knows best, no wonder he doesn’t answer his phone.

  10. lotusgreen December 12, 2014 at 1:02 pm

    Sorry — two more thoughts. One is, I suppose anyone’s happiness could be looked upon with a doubting eye. And two — how can these both be true: My mother was a scientist; she worked in an infectious-disease lab… and Most likely, she was out playing golf with her friend Bernardine from the typing pool over at Ajax.

  11. Margaret October 10, 2015 at 9:20 pm

    Just read this brilliant story for the first time. Hope my comments add to all the insight expressed above:

    With the first sentences, the reader may believe that the narrator’s father’s weight will be the subject of the story, but that focus quickly expands to include all his appetites, both sexual (with lap dances) and for violence (with war). As the story moves forward we realize that this narrator indulges many people’s appetites, their desires, while denying his own. Often this involves helping people change the landscape around them. There’s the plastic surgeon, a man whose profession is to perfect the physical flaws people can’t live with; he would rather watch something out of Hollywood on his home movie screen than look onto his gorgeous view of the cordillera. This builder will help him accomplish that. His construction crew makes a pond out of a marshy spot; drops a bridge across a creek; and blocks out the aforementioned mountain view because “sometimes it rains.” These are environments that people can’t accept so they insist on changing them; his parents attempt something similar with each other. What’s so disturbing to the narrator about his memory of his father’s maniacally licking batter is his mother’s extraordinarily stern expression. (What’s also interesting is that while his father has a hard time accepting his son’s environment, he does little to try to change it.)

    The only other couple mentioned in the story, Dee and Helen, actually do not try to change their view, which might be the least desirable of anyone’s. Yet they are respectively “happy,” and “enchanted” with and by their prospects. Dee even prepares the land himself, so this isn’t a landscape that the narrator has to fix.

    What seems to bring the narrator pleasure about his job site is the violence of it—look at those images/sounds: the scream of the saw, the noise of the nail gun, the thermoses [precariously] on a ledge. Sounds similar to his childhood home.

    In the first paragraph he says he answers the calls of obesity-cure solicitations—he even engages with the callers!—but in the last paragraph he says that he uses the phone only for outbound calls. So he’s not being quite honest with us or himself. What about that girlfriend he went out west with? He’s cut himself off—his father says he’s the one that no one understands—but he’s still carrying around the weight of his parents. Being involved in a meaningful, loving relationship would mean giving up that weight; a happy marriage or relationship also requires each partner to accept the invariable flaws in the other (like Dee and Helen). Instead the narrator builds homes for others, much like he’s supplied a safe haven for his parents—he is as happy to play along that he prefers them together as he is to slim down his father so his mother will take him back. The narrator is the one dieting, so as not to end up like them, but which of us can give up our parents, any more than we can give up our desire to love and be loved?

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