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.
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!
“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.