Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Thomas McGuane’s “Hubcaps” was originally published in the April 21, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.

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Trevor

Thomas McGuane is one of my favorites, so I’ll have my thoughts up soon-ish! We are moving tomorrow, so there may be a slight delay — but wish me luck!

Betsy

“Hubcaps,” by Thomas McGuane, is delicate and magnificent.

I don’t want to give the story away. Owen Egan is a country boy of 13 or 14 and a loner and his parents both drink a lot. Owen loves the solitude of his room and the adventure of the swamp, but also the fun of the baseball field. Owen also likes the safety of his friendship with Ben, who is intellectually disabled, but none-the-less feisty. The story opens and expands gradually, each off-hand revelation more and more  worrisome.

It’s important that I say the ending made me cry. I worry about saying that — as if McGuane is a sentimentalist or his story a cheap trick. I don’t think so. His art is such that I put the story more in the realm of fable or unforgettable.

But already I’ve given up too much of the story. You just have to read it.

If you’ve read it, though, then let’s go.

I love the way the title works. First of all the title reminded me of the big, perfect, shiny hubcap collection I saw displayed on the Bastrop Road last week in Texas. Where had they come from? So when I began this story, I had that image of the car careening away from its brush with a pothole or curb or another car, the popped hubcap bouncing off in the other direction. That sole hubcap feels, in the imagination, lost in the shuffle, misplaced, forgotten. The group of hubcaps by the road, though, looked authoritative, projecting a sense of belonging and shiny perfection, of being protected and valued. The story takes off from there and rides perfectly on all those suggestions.

I want to note that I enjoyed the offhand way McGuane places the story in time and space. McGuane mentions how Owen, the boy, thinks of himself as a George Kell kind of third basemen in the neighborhood baseball game. Who’s George Kell, I think? I discuss this with my husband. It turns out that Kell played in the late forties and fifties for Philadelphia, Detroit, Boston, Chicago, and Baltimore. So Owen, the main character in the story, is kind of a universal boy — of a sort.

For sure I recognize Owen — the kid whose parents drink themselves in and out of various catastrophes — the kid who retreats to his room, the kid who’s drawn to families that are actually families, the kid who both loves the safety of the swamp as well as the fixed roles of the baseball field. But I like the way I see how in danger Owen is, way before Owen himself sees it.

I love the offhand way McGuane reveals the nature of the parents’ drinking — “the possible hysteria to come” that is signaled by the first cocktails of late afternoon — the way the mother sets fire to the kitchen by mistake, the arguments, the occasional shame and fear that both his mother and father cause him. But regardless, Owen would rather things stayed the same, rather than that they split. The story telling is mercifully oblique. Because the telling is so flat, so offhand, it’s as if Owen himself doesn’t realize just how bad this all is.

The story, after all, is about how bad this all is.

In the meantime, there are heroes. Anybody who grows up with parents like Owen’s knows that heroes go with the territory.

First of all, there is Mr. Kershaw, father of three boys, who builds a baseball diamond for them and the entire neighborhood.

Then there is Mrs. Kershaw, who has one magnificent scene, when she appears on the Kershaw baseball diamond and says there will be no game unless Ben is included, Ben being the mentally handicapped youngest Kershaw. That said, she leaves. And Ben is included.

As for heroes, there is also Mr. Kershaw taking the time to do a little arrowhead hunting with Owen. Life is possible for the Owens of this world if there are also the Mr. Kershaws and the arrowheads they give us.

Another aspect of this story that interests me greatly is that in it McGuane seems to be talking to Alice Munro. This seems like conversation, like tribute, like thanks, but also like a reply or even an ever so restrained argument. (What it does not seem like is a studied copy.) Owen, of course, has none of the feisty independence of Munro’s Del, because Del’s parents, while odd and marginalized and a little dysfunctional, are nevertheless not so damaged. Del’s parents connect with her. Owen’s parents do not connect with him.

I hear the lyric call of the swamp in this story, the same as the call of Munro’s Wawanash River, and I note the fallen woman in Owen’s neighborhood, reminiscent of the prostitute on Munro’s Flats Road.

But most of all, I note the presence of Ben, reminiscent of the girl with Down syndrome in “Dance of the Happy Shades,” and also reminiscent of Benjy, from Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury. Faulkner’s Benjy is so disabled that he is mute, but he is the keystone of the novel — he is perfect love and perfect need and perfect innocence and perfect vulnerability. And he is perfectly betrayed when he is labeled and institutionalized. So we are warned. You cannot know McGuane’s handicapped Ben is named Ben and not know what is coming. In contrast, Munro’s “Dance of the Happy Shades” imagines the possibly perfect music that the girl with Down syndrome can play, the possibly perfect musician that she can be, and the possibly perfect salvation she can experience because of the goodness of the piano teacher.

McGuane answers Munro. He says — nice — but it’s not that easy. He specifically makes Ben a klutz on the field and somewhat of a broken record regarding baseball statistics. Ben’s mother may have been the good mother who enjoined that nobody plays if everybody doesn’t play. And Ben’s father may have built the diamond where everybody plays. In McGuane’s world, however, society is still imperfect. McGuane’s Ben, just like Benjy, gets accused and hauled off. Unlike Munro’s pianist who has Down syndrome, McGuane’s Ben is, to our knowledge, not in the end rescued by goodness.

If the story is in conversation with Munro, it is also in conversation with Steinbeck. In any story about the Bens of our world, there is also Steinbeck’s intellectually disabled Lennie, Lennie who is saved from arrest for murder and a mob when George shoots him. McGuane does not so overstate the case that way. And yet these things happen. Not too long ago, an elderly man in our town shot his intellectually disabled grown son and himself, not being able to trust the world to take care of the son if the father should sicken or die. The father, just like Steinbeck’s George, told the son they would soon be taking a wonderful trip.

McGuane’s story is more ordinary and more universal. It is merely that Ben disappears.

The immense importance of McGuane’s story for me is that I live in this world, just like many of you do. Any of our children can be destroyed by the world, but children with an intellectual disability live at a great risk. One of the risks is merely becoming one of the disappeared. So I treasure McGuane’s writing about Ben at all. And I treasure that Owen, despite his own troubles, perhaps because of his own troubles, sees Ben precisely and remembers him.

Where Munro eschews the lyric, McGuane risks it. See the way he describes Owen and his turtles:

Once, Owen caught two of the less vigilant turtles, the size of fifty-cent pieces, with poignant little feet constantly trying to get somewhere that only they knew. Owen loved their tiny perfection, the flexible undersides of their shells, the ridges down their topside that he could detect with his thumbnail. Their necks were striped yellow, and they stretched them upward in their striving. Owen made a false bottom for his lunchbox with ventilation holes so that he could always have them with him, despite the rule against taking pets to school or on the school bus. He fed them flies from a bottle cap. Only Ben knew where they were.

Parallel stories in “Hubcaps” intensify our emotional reaction to each story. Owen is neglected by his parents, Ben is protected by his parents; Owen loves Ben; he also loves his turtles.

These situations reverberate against each other. Despite Owen needing their care, his parents are oblivious to him. Despite Ben having a good mother and father, society could still be oblivious to him. Despite Owen’s protection, despite their “tiny perfection,” the turtles are still at risk when out of their element, abroad in the world. Ben’s own tiny perfections are called to mind, and Owen’s. The way Owen builds a lunchbox heaven for his turtles mirrors the way the Kershaws build a baseball heaven, where there is a place to play and where everyone has a rightful place.

You’ve read the story already, right? Because you cannot appreciate the emotion McGuane inspires if I give away the ending. But I cannot write about the story without at least alluding to the ending. Owen’s turtles are mindlessly destroyed by a bully. And Ben is lost, too, to the wilderness of adolescence, to society’s rules, to no way to save everyone, to the simple fact that the world’s capacity for cruelty is immense.

The story feels well-placed, given that this is Passover and Easter week.

And here’s the thing. There’s an immediacy in the story that I value. And I value the daring. What a risk, to arouse the reader’s emotions. I think he pulls it off perfectly. For one thing, I think the scope of his topic can bear the weight. Same thing with Faulkner. If you read The Sound and the Fury, the emotional impact is almost unbearable, and yet, that is why you remember it. For Owen’s sake, and for Ben’s sake, and for mine, a grandmother of a perfect little Ben, I am grateful that McGuane is willing to risk the tight wire of appealing to our emotions.

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By |2014-04-21T11:54:18-04:00April 14th, 2014|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Thomas McGuane|20 Comments

20 Comments

  1. Trevor Berrett April 14, 2014 at 8:15 pm

    This post has been updated to include Betsy’s wonderful thoughts.

  2. Jan Wilkens April 15, 2014 at 4:35 pm

    McGuane captures the world-weary point of view of a child from dysfunction and a background of middle class neglect. His character in ,Weight Watchers, several months earlier was the same character…only older. It is a child we all recognize and who fares better in the long run than it’s female counterpart. For as men they will often move on to women who love them and understand they are broken. Not so for women.
    The slightly larcenous activities In which Owen engaged in are tiny yelps for attention. Soaping a house, hiding hubcaps and carrying the turtles into forbidden territory are so quiet and innocent as to be heartbreaking.
    Mine was the home where the lost children in our neighborhood gravitated to because of a mother who was deeply aware of what they were missing. If we were cleaning the house she gave them a chore, a nickname and a place at the table.
    The story was beautifully told, masterfully understated.

  3. Betsy Pelz April 15, 2014 at 10:55 pm

    Jan, thanks for your perfect commentary.

    Thomas McGuane’s remarks in his interview with Deborah Treisman are worth reading. (http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2014/04/this-week-in-fiction-thomas-mcguane-2.html)

    Toward the end of the interview, Treisman asks: “Despite his mother’s fierce protectiveness, Ben ends up banished to some kind of institution. Is it right to read “Hubcaps” as a kind of protest story?”

    McGuane answers: “Absolutely. ….People who may require special care from humankind should have the same standing as anyone else in the complicated family of man. They deserve celebration, not warehousing.”

    Beautifully done. Bravely said.

    It’s important to say that Owen loves Ben, partly because he just does, and partly because Ben is comforting to know. I suggested that Ben is not saved by goodness in this story. But that is not completely true. Moments of Ben’s life, and moments of Owen’s life, are saved by love and bravery. It’s a start and it’s the only start we have.

    In the interview, McGuane mentions the human predicament – what do you do when you can’t save everyone?

    Today I listened to people speaking in Boston about being wounded by the Boston Marathon Bombing a year ago. As Patrick Downes said, “we chose to love, and that has made all the difference.”

    In a way this is what McGuane’s story is about – the choice to love – baseball, sons, turtles, arrowheads, lost boys, each of us, any of us, come what may. (And of course, that is what Alice Munro’s “Dance of the Happy Shades was about as well.)

    Bravely done, Mr. McGuane, given how often we overlook our opportunities to choose love.

  4. Betsy Pelz April 17, 2014 at 10:30 pm

    I was so startled to be reading a story that had as one of the main characters an intellectually disabled child that I ran with that. But, of course, Owen is as important as Ben.

    I want to highlight Jan’s observation about Owen: “The slightly larcenous activities In which Owen engaged in are tiny yelps for attention. Soaping a house, hiding hubcaps and carrying the turtles into forbidden territory are so quiet and innocent as to be heartbreaking.”

  5. Greg April 19, 2014 at 8:51 pm

    I am curious Jan as to why you believe women may not be able to find an understanding man to help heal from childhood trauma?

    (Thank you for your insightful comments!)

  6. Jan Wilkens April 21, 2014 at 12:48 am

    Greg, my observation about “adult children” was placed more in a literary context than social science but in hinking more about it, I believe it to be true in literature and in life. The November 14 story , Weight Watcher, by McGuane, had an Owen like character but as an adult. He lives alone, has “girlfriends” dogs and a craft in which he finds great satisfaction and value. He is Owen on his own and perhaps having borne witness for too many years to the dark side of marriage and alcoholism he chose a more solitary existence. Rarely, (if ever) do I see women make that lindependant life choice. The short story writer Pam Houston very often comes close, but her characters are always seeking love and family. When women “survive” lonely childhoods they often don’t have the solace of sports and work and animals in which to live a full single life while still “recovering.” Also, they often have children and the ensueing financial chao that follows. I did not read, Hubcaps” from a feminist perspective but the landscape of short stories is littered with women who never really find joy or satisfaction as adults and remain broken. I appreciate you prodding me to examine my thinking more deeply about where this story took me.

  7. Greg April 21, 2014 at 12:20 pm

    Thank you Jan for expanding on women overcoming childhood difficulties.

    I believe that Betsy would agree with me that Alice Munro has dealt very effectively with this issue. I especially like her treatment in the second section of “The View from Castle Rock”.

  8. Sean H April 22, 2014 at 4:35 pm

    I’ve gotta object to Jan’s gendered and skewed comment, “It is a child we all recognize and who fares better in the long run than it’s female counterpart. For as men they will often move on to women who love them and understand they are broken. Not so for women.”

    Let’s take the “it’s” for “its” grammar error as evidence of sophomoric thinking also.

    What evidence could you possibly detail that men are more likely to find love and understanding than women? Are you talking about straight men, straight women, men and women from the era of the story? Even that opening phrase “It is a child we all recognize” seems profoundly un-literary. What makes Owen interesting is that he is a singular, three-dimensional character. Not a “type.” Not someone “we all recognize.”

    And seeking love, understanding or friendship certainly doesn’t make anyone “broken,” either.

  9. Jan Wilkens April 25, 2014 at 10:09 am

    My reactions to the character of Owen in the story. “Hubcaps” were in relationship to an earlier NYorker story, by McGuane, “Weight Watcher.” It that story, the protagonist was a character who seemed to be Owen as an adult. An only child, unmarried and dealing with the same kind of parents Owen had in “Hubcaps.” My comments earlier were intended only in context to the two excellent stories. I was more emotionally moved by the character of Owen than I was of Ben. I felt the loss however of Ben and how it must have affected his parents . We know of course how it affected Owen. I agree with Betsy that Ben is an archetype that has appeared in literature before.and that Steinbeck took it beyond a stock character. I also agree that in this story McGuane is more honest and unflinching about how mean people can be to people like Ben once they leave the safety of home and family. Schools and particularly school buses can be microcosms of the harsh world of people like the twins (who both really had the same name) who are so cruel. I love this blog and hope it stays about the literature and not the blogger. Sean using an example of my faulty usage to highlight my sophomoric thinking was a turn-off. Hope to stay involved. Thanks Betsy and Trevor.

  10. Betsy April 25, 2014 at 4:23 pm

    Jan, thank you for your careful response.

    Sean, we try to focus on the story, its language, its devices, its author and any cultural information that illuminates the story. Your remarks fulfill none of these goals. Your casual and offhanded thoughtlessness was not a contribution to our discussion.

    To be a welcome contributor, a commentator needs to focus on the literature.

  11. Trevor Berrett April 25, 2014 at 4:31 pm

    I don’t mind if someone calls someone out for what might appear to be underlying assumptions, but I agree that Jan adequately explained she was talking in terms of the stories’ characters. I do not like it when a commenter calls someone out for typo. So I echo Betsy in reminding Sean to be more thoughtful in comments. If you disagree, simply say so and explain.

  12. Roger April 26, 2014 at 11:53 pm

    I found this story very moving for reasons others’ comments have noted. It left me wondering what would happen to Owen and fearful about what had happened to Ben. McGuane brings to life so many characters in a relatively brief space – not only Owen and Ben but others, like Mr. Kershaw and the nasty twins on the school bus. There is a meandering quality to the narrative that I might ordinarily find fault with, but it fits perfectly here, in sync with the open, indefinite nature of what will become of Owen as a child in a damaged family and, later, as a young adult who seems bent on continuing his hubcap theft, as his way of acting out on the sad, unstable realities that overwhelm the sweet and sacred things in his life, the baseball games and swamp adventures.

    A couple of anachronisms bugged me a little: the reference to “Native Americans” seems incompatible with the late 1940s/early 1950s setting, as does Owen’s father’s use of the word “homeless.” A couple of unfortunate word choices made their way in – our narrator uses the cliché “run like the wind” and tells us of treetops that were “ignited” by lake light (someone call Smokey Bear!). McGuane is too much of a pro for these kinds of things – hopefully he will fix them before this appears in his upcoming collection!

  13. Betsy Pelz April 29, 2014 at 11:08 am

    Roger – your editing suggestions for Mr. McGuane seem really thoughtful. I wonder what his editor at the New Yorker thought. The anachronisms – homeless and Native American – are clearly related to the narrative method. In first person, Native American & homeless could have worked, but only as narration, not as dialogue. Again – I wonder how his NYer editor thought that out.

    Love your appreciative, thoughtful summary of this wonderful story, Roger. Because it is a terrific story.

  14. mehbe May 1, 2014 at 7:57 am

    Although I noticed that “run like the wind”, it seemed just right to me. It evoked a certain manner of expression that, to me, was just right at the moment it appeared.

    One thing that didn’t work for me was the safety patrol character – he seemed too obviously contrived just to do what he did. Another was the scene where Owen’s drunk father tried to insert himself into the baseball game – I’m not sure why, but that bit rang false for me. Both of these things turn up near the end of the story, and I had the sense that McGuane was forcing the last part of the story a bit.

    But I love it anyway – there’s some very beautiful stuff in it.

  15. Betsy Pelz May 1, 2014 at 9:36 pm

    mehbe, I have to disagree with you.

    “Hall monitors” and “Bus monitors” were a staple of the fifties. Our school even had a court with an eighth grade boy in a black robe as a judge. Cases were held in the cafeteria. To me, the Safety Patrol character was entirely within keeping. It rings true to me, and his tyranny rings true to me, too. Parents and teachers back then thought such roles taught leadership. But they were all so busy getting on with life after WWII that they sometimes didn’t give a lot of thought to the fact that leadership must be nurtured.

    As for Owen’s dad stumbling drunkenly onto the field, that’s all too possible. McGuane makes so clear how drinking affected the father, that it could make him “disagreeable or lugubrious” or even “romantic”.

    Clearly, having lost his wife, and somehow dimly realizing he has lost his son as well, Owen’s father gets the romantic notion that he will join his son on the field.

    People who drink a lot are quite moody and changeable and out-of-touch.. It is entirely within the realm of possibility that now without his wife to fight with, the father realizes how alone he is. And he ventures out where he’s not been before, or not been seen in a long time.

    I found the scene real, possible and very painful. The other boys didn’t want to hang around if this sad, drunk man was going to be there. Owen has to walk his father home, soothing himself with thoughts about hubcaps.

    To me this quick scene was not forced at all. Anyone who has ever suddenly seen their drunken father through the eyes of the other kids will understand the moment.

    It’s over in an instant, the way the kids dissolve away from Owen into the evening dusk. That’s the way it is. That’s the way it was. People saw, and people evaporated. Even the Kershaws.

    And there it is. The innocent, romantic notion Owen might have had that he could keep these troubles locked in a box is gone in a flash. That’s all it takes for this kind of recognition scene. You’re about fourteen and you suddenly see it all. That everyone knows, but no one knows what to do. That you’ve been left to handle it. .

    All because, after all, this father whom Owen needs and also loves, who was reaching out a little, has appeared drunk in the place Owen finds the safest and most sacred.

    For me, this is as deeply true as any scene in the story. That it goes by in a flash is how McGuane honors it. It may be the scene upon which the entire story hinges. I thank him for it. My chest tightens as I read it.

    But that’s just me.
    .

  16. Ken May 5, 2014 at 4:33 am

    I thank both Betsy’s and (most of) the other commentators above. The story moved me and yet I couldn’t very well put in words why I liked it. There was something so lovely but mysterious and elusive to what McGuane has done here. Therefore, the lucid comments and detailed reflection–some of it fittingly impressionistic and personal and poetic–which characterizes this site at its best was so useful to me to help me try to figure out exactly what I so liked about this wonderful story.

  17. Betsy May 6, 2014 at 5:51 pm

    Ken, I just want to acknowledge your kind words. Mookse and Gripes is a great place to be. Now we have Lee and Michael and Amanda adding so much to the endeavor. That Trevor both inspires us with his vision and also gives each of us the chance to write in our own voice makes it a unique experience. And then there’s what we talk about – the work of the writers or artists (like Mr. McGuane) who often inspire us deeply. And more – there are the people, like you, who join the conversation and enrich it. Mookse is a great place to be.

  18. Madwomanintheattic May 12, 2014 at 1:01 pm

    So much to like – Jan’s reading makes me want to search for her truth in other stories, Betsy’s eloquent and considered praise for McGuane here, and the heartbreaking story itself. My favorite line, repeated at the end “You know the rules,” and then “You knew the rules,” is so precisely wrong that it makes me go back and reconsider all the rules that are broken throughout the story – kindness breaks rules: that the game goes on without the full complement of players but always with Ben, that the arrowhead finder gives it away instead of trading are just two examples. Owen’s rule-breaking is dangerous and delicious, but when the rules are enforced, oh my God.

  19. Mark Miller June 2, 2014 at 9:53 pm

    Amazing, heartening and encouraging, all these articulate, insightful reflections on Thomas McGuane’s most recently published story. It strikes me as remarkable that this master of fiction, while certainly well-traveled and no stranger to America’s literary capitals, most of all New York City, resides in relative physical isolation on his Montana ranch, a half-hour drive from the nearest city — and yet engenders this on-going, vibrant literary discussion. Bodes well for contemporary literature, I think — I hope.

  20. lotusgreen February 20, 2015 at 12:18 pm

    I miss Betsy. I really do, not only her insight and wisdom, but also the beauty of the language with which she communicates them.

    That said…. I agree with the above appreciation of the story. One thing that didn’t get mentioned that I felt represented an important element in the story was the relationship between Ben and the twins. More even than any of the grown-ups in the story, it’s the twins (and the bully, I guess) that turn the screws, that create the heartless outcome. Who break Ben’s heart.

    They faux-rescue this hapless boy (in part to further disgrace Owen), make it cool to like him, make it cool to be him, — how that moment must have felt to him — and then when he follows the script in the scene they have created he is punished beyond all reason. I get this image of a bullfight: matador flashing red cape, jousting and jumping around, and when the bull finally responds, exactly as he has been asked to do, he gets it, the sword, right between the shoulder blades.

    And as he sits in the, well, wherever it is he’d been put, what runs through his mind? “What did I do wrong? What did I do to make them stop liking me?”

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