"Papaya"
by Thomas McGuane
Originally published in the August 22, 2016 issue of The New Yorker.

August 22, 2016After a few months of disappointing stories, The New Yorker is finally treating me right by showcasing the work of a couple of my favorite short story authors, Tessa Hadley last week and Thomas McGuane this week. I hope that “Papaya” pleases me as much as Hadley’s “Dido’s Lament” did last week.

I’ll have thoughts below soon. In the meantime, feel free to share your response to the story or to McGuane’s work in general.

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By |2016-08-15T11:31:57-04:00August 15th, 2016|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Thomas McGuane|Tags: |14 Comments

14 Comments

  1. David August 15, 2016 at 11:43 am

    I read “Papaya” and then the author interview. For those who don’t know, this story is a sequel to a story called “The Refugee”, published in McGuane’s 2006 book Gallatin Canyon. A quick google search revealed that an electronic copy of “The Refugee” can be purchased online for just $1. At 20,000 words (more than 50 pages) that’s a great deal. So if you liked “Papaya” and want more, it’s easy to find.

  2. Roger August 19, 2016 at 9:14 pm

    This story struck me as unduly contrived – possibly for comic effect, but not successfully so in my view. It features coincidences and other eye-rolling moments: Errol falls into a career insuring ships because when the owners of the insurance agency die, he – their janitor — takes over. He meets Dr. and Mrs. Higuero out at sea between the Bahamas and Florida, then runs into them later on Route A1A. Before that, he awakens on an unspecified island in the Bahamas, where a woman standing over him conscripts him to transport bat guano from caves to the roots of papaya trees. And it turns out, she is really some kind of international drug supplier (unless the tomato trade involves dealing with armed men in race boats). This wasn’t plausible enough to take straight. Nor was it clever or funny enough to read as a parody of the Odyssey.

    Speaking of unfunny, the grossout scenes didn’t help. I could have done without the graphic earwax removal episode, especially as an appetizer for lunch with Dr. Higuero. The same for the masturbation scene and its revisiting on the morning after. And of course, all that bat guano. Has McGuane been watching too many Adam Sandler movies? And watching the wrong ones?

    In connection with another story recently, there was discussion about suspension of disbelief, a phrase traditionally described as involving a step a reader takes to enjoy fiction containing a supernatural element. I tend to apply the term more loosely and broadly to any kind of fiction, and as beginning with what the author does: Does he create a world that makes me practically forget I’m reading a story because I find characters that feel alive on the page? So that I want to suspend disbelief? In “Papaya,” I never forgot I was reading a story – and a tedious one at that.
    I could expand on that last point, but will hold off at least for now to avoid starting with a 1000-word- long post of pure negativity….

  3. Eric August 20, 2016 at 6:13 am

    To me, this story read like what it probably in fact is–a bunch of stories the author heard in South Florida bars, stitched together into a narrative. I rather liked it, as I do most well-crafted stories of the “screwed-up narcissistic kid gets what’s coming and learns what’s important” genre. But I think I would have found it less complex and contrived, and therefore more enjoyable, if McGuane had only tried to squeeze in five or six of his sloshed bar tales, rather than the ten or fifteen that seem to have made the cut.

  4. William August 20, 2016 at 10:08 pm

    I see that the 3 comments so far are in line with my response to this story. Particularly Eric’s — a South Florida bar story. Or a Jimmy Buffet song, maybe “He Went to Paris” or “Changes in Latitudes”, which I’ve always thought of as Key West bar stories. Nothing wrong with a Jimmy Buffet song, lots of fun, but I wouldn’t expect to find it in the magazine that used to publish Flannery O’Connor. On the other hand, the NYer has published a couple of Stephen King stories in the last few years, so maybe the whole enterprise is going down the tubes. Oh well, there is still David Remnick’s reportage.

    BTW, did you notice the James Wood article about Joy Williams in this issue?

  5. David August 21, 2016 at 1:24 pm

    I quite enjoyed this story. I did not have a problem with any of the elements Roger commented on above. In fact, the way he came to run the company was dealt with so quickly and in passing that I thought, “I bet there’s another story here, one I’d like to read.” (By the way, the story says he “had begun as the janitor”, not that he was still the janitor when the two older partners died.) I also felt the same way upon learning that his daughter shares a name with the Bahamian woman. At the very least, it indicated that this experience with her would turn out well.

    When I read in the interview that this was a sequel to his story “The Refugee” I got and read that one too. It made me appreciate “Papaya” even more and I liked how the two stories are not just connected, but briefly overlap. In the interview he also says he might return to Errol again. I hope he does. The two stories so far add up to about 25,000 words or around 70 pages, but I still want to hear more of Errol’s story.

  6. avataram August 22, 2016 at 9:21 am

    I loved the story as well. For me, it feels more “real” as I got kicked out of the US a few years earlier, and now live in the Caribbean. A kind of a reverse Errol Healy story. Thanks to David, I got the $1 copy of “The Refugee” and plan to read that as well.

    There are a few things difficult to believe like meeting the Higueros again on the A1A. I was also curious if Errol swallowed the nails he was carrying in his mouth when he slid off the roof. But these are minor quibbles. On the whole the story was more believable than the average Carl Hiaasen novel and I hope McGuane writes a bit more on Air Roll.

    Another great read is the Paris Review interview, where McGuane coins a term “Joco-Splenetic” to describe some of his novels.

  7. Roger August 22, 2016 at 10:54 am

    David, that is a good catch about Errol merely having “begun” as the janitor. I had missed that. I suppose he may have moved up in the insurance agency before the “two old Conchs” passed away, and may have acquired an equity stake in the business before they died. Unusual, but not unheard of. Maybe one of the virtues of the story, for those who liked it, is the enjoyment that can be derived by a reader who likes to fill in blanks like these.

    One aspect of the story that I liked, or at least admired, was the expertise McGuane displayed in his description of the various boats that are part of the action. I always felt I was in good hands when it came to his rendering of the boats. Who knows, it may even be that the verisimilitude of those descriptions contrasted so starkly with the story’s various improbabilities that I became less tolerant of the far-fetched hijinks.

    If this story was a film, I imagine critics would describe it as a “caper.” Think, for instance, “The Italian Job,” but with less action. But, when I read a story in TNY, I’m not looking for a caper. So I will play the part of literary snob on this one.

  8. David August 22, 2016 at 11:53 am

    Roger, I did not find the idea of his rise from janitor to owner to be strange at all. We all know the cliché of the head of a company who started in the mail room. My first part time job was in a restaurant as a dishwasher. I eventually was moved to being a busboy and sometimes busboys became waiters, waiters became managers, and managers became general managers. So my thought was “I bet there’s a story there” but not because it seemed so unusual. Also, I am in general opposed to fill-in-the-blanks reading. If I find myself doing that it’s because the story given is not doing its job. This one did not have me trying to fill in blanks, just wanting to hear more. There’s a big difference there.

    But I am most surprised with your comment that the story reads like a caper. I don’t see that element in it at all. I don’t read The New Yorker (or anything else for that matter) looking for snob stories, so I would not mind if it was one. This, however, was a story primarily of the recollection of an important moment in Errol’s life, the time he was stranded on a foreign island and let a woman make him a virtual slave because that’s what he needed at the time. The story is thus mainly an internal one, not about action and adventure.

  9. Roger August 22, 2016 at 12:37 pm

    David, I think you and I are more or less in the same place with respect to Errol’s ascent from janitor to owner of the insurance agency. I stated that it is “unusual but not unheard of”; you state it wasn’t “strange.” I agree. It does require the reader to imagine Errol moving up in the business and acquiring an ownership interest before the two elderly owners passed away, but that isn’t a huge stretch.

    Is this story a caper featuring action and adventure or is it, as you contend, “mainly an internal one?” Well, let’s see: After the opening (and its vivid pre-lunch earwax cleaning), Errol treats us to a protracted flashback in which he awakes on a Bahamian island, where he has been robbed and is next enlisted into bat-guano-transportation/fertilization chores by a mysterious woman. In the midst of a two-scene masturbation event, a storm blows off part of his shack’s tin roof, which he ineptly tries to repair, finally falling off a window ledge (Ouch!). The woman eventually releases him from custody by way of a voyage to Florida involving a big money drug transaction and a smuggled Cuban refugee couple. Back in Florida, he gets a ride down Highway A1A by a would-be rapist. After escaping and chowing down at a conveniently nearby homeless shelter, he hitchhikes again, getting picked up this time by … the Cuban refugee couple!

    To be sure, in the interview McGuane explains that Errol needed to be enslaved on the island to be able to eventually resume his life. Whether the story as a whole amounts to a caper is something I’m comfortable letting individual readers decide, be they pro- or anti-caper. As noted, I’m in the latter camp, causing me to self-identify as a “literary snob” (a term I’m using kiddingly, lest I was unclear earlier).

  10. David August 22, 2016 at 1:05 pm

    Roger, a list of the events that happen does not tell if it is a story of those events or if it is a story of the significance of those events to the life of the character who experienced them. The framing of the story makes it clear that those events are a memory of a pivotal time in his life. The reasons why those events happen, how he reacts to them, and the effect they have on him are the essence of the story, not just the laundry list of them. If you don;t know why any of these things is happening or why he is telling us about them, then yes it would sound like an average adventure story (or, as Eric put it, “a bunch of stories … stitched together into a narrative”). But that would miss the point of it all.

    By the way, I don’t get your reaction to the earwax removal. It did not strike me as particularly gross or graphic. I also thought it worked as a rather clever metaphor: Sometimes when you dig in to clean out your own junk, you just end up pushing it down deeper creating a total blockage. Then you need someone else’s help to get it cleared out. But be careful, because even if it looks like it might all be cleared away, there still might be some bit of junk deeply lodged that needs a bit more convincing to get out.

    I hope no one was eating when they read that :-)

  11. Ken August 24, 2016 at 4:52 am

    I have been very underwhelmed by this and the previous McGuane story in The New Yorker despite usually liking his work. I agree about the ‘caper’ description–we are told this was important for Earl but since we don’t know anything about what had caused him to be desperate and get very little of his interior process, it remains a ‘caper.’ I found the first section far too expository and littered with names of people and places and then it settled into a sort of “folksy” or, if you like, “bar story” type style I found tiresome and since Earl is so under-developed all I was reading for was for story only. It moves along alright but this is really disappointing for The New Yorker. This is also why I’m far more forgiving–not that either story in my mind needs this–for work like Joy Williams’ or Michael Andreassen’s–I’d far rather see ambition than genre fiction in The New Yorker.

  12. Sean H August 24, 2016 at 11:12 pm

    Immersive and well-structured but a bit lacking in punch at the end. McGuane’s a pro and the characters well quite believable. I wanted to spend more time with their older versions at the end but the intro gives it sufficient resonance. It’s not a classic but overall I thought McGuane’s handling of the multi-cultural aspects was quite deft.
    Worst line: “When Jaquinda was a teen-ager, Errol had stayed away from the Higueros household for perfectly good reasons:briefly a wild high schooler, Jaquinda had once shared with him her little supply of cocaine and things had very nearly gone off the rails before Errol sensibly fled to his air conditioned insurance office.” Just suffused with lazy adverbs and a downright cliche (“off the rails”). A long, convoluted, unnecessary and clunky sentence.
    Best line(s): “They wore identical ball caps from the Dania greyhound track and beheld each other with comical admiration. Errol saw that these were clever people.” Bam. Perfect. And that’s how lifelong friendships are formed. The description is followed by the perception of that description with no filler or waste. Just economical as hell.
    Overall a thumbs-up. I looked at some of the comments above and I don’t see it as genre fiction or a pub story at all. It’s clearly character-driven literary fiction that is very methodical about how it’s structured for maximum impact and contemplation. Angela is a well-drawn character and her presence hangs over the whole story. The wax removal is a unique and well-chosen symbol (it’s rare that you come across a symbol you’ve literally never seen used before) and at no point did I feel un-immersed. The people in the story felt real throughout. I could picture them very easily. I agree it may be a bit lacking in ambition but a story well-told is better than average and I definitely think it’s worth reading.
    Last year’s “The Driver” was downright brilliant and McGuane isn’t at that level here but this is still an accomplished bit of writing.

  13. Greg August 24, 2016 at 11:33 pm

    Thank you Roger and David for providing us with such a rich back-and-forth repartee!

    You both made this story come alive for me by making me think whether I see things the way you do Roger….or rather how you do David.

    I respect both of your opinions, so you have made me work in a good way…..and Roger, you really made me laugh with this:

    “Has McGuane been watching too many Adam Sandler movies? And watching the wrong ones?”

  14. David August 25, 2016 at 11:17 am

    Sean, I agree with your general assessment of the story (although I don’t have a problem with the sentence you didn’t like). I was less impressed with “The Driver” than you were, so I thought “Papaya” was better than it. I can understand the “lacking ambition” feeling you had, but I read “The Refugee” immediately after reading “Papaya”. Perhaps as a stand-alone story it might seem smaller than it is, but as a sequel and close companion to the previous story it adds up to more.

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