Balloons
by Thomas McGuane
from the May 10, 2021 issue of The New Yorker

I‘m always excited to see Thomas McGuane in The New Yorker. We used to get one or two new stories per year, but it’s slowed down a tad in recent years. That is understandable; in December he turned 81.

From this first paragraph of “Balloons,” he’s clearly still got it.

Ten years before Joan Krebs left her husband, Roger, and moved back to Cincinnati, I spotted the two of them dining alone by the bricked-up fireplace in the Old Eagle Grill. She was a devoted daughter, her father a sportsman with well-bred dogs, who arrived once a year to peer at Roger and inspect the marriage. Roger always saluted his father-in-law’s departure with the words “Good riddance.” In those days, Joan stirred up our town with her air of dangerous glamour and the sense that her marriage to Roger couldn’t possibly last. There was nothing wrong with Roger, but talking to him was laborious. As the founder of the once famous Nomad Agency, he sold high-end recreational properties to members of his far-flung society, and he had taken on the language of his clients. After he described a drought-stricken, abandoned part of the state as a “tightly held neighborhood,” he came to be known as Tightly Held Krebs, or T.H. In the areas of Montana that were subject to his creative hyperbole, people bought god-awful properties, believing that they were an acquired taste. Renowned for his many closings, Roger was on the road a lot; this worked perfectly for Joan and me.

That’s quite the opening paragraph, and the story continues to show how this affair and the general friendship with Roger and Joan as a couple developed and fell apart over time. The narrator’s voice provides quite a bit of intrigue, revealing bits of his own role in all of this in ways that seem natural, that make us his familiar, but that also show us his own surprise at how things developed, like this bit from an interaction he has with Roger:

As he continued to summarize his life with Joan, I fought off my daydreaming to note that he seemed to be heading somewhere, and, indeed, he was. My guess was that he was going to demand a direct answer about Joan and me, but I was wrong: Roger thought that I was the right doc to euthanize him. “I’m not depressed, but I am ready to go,” he said. “I won’t feel a thing.” He dropped his hands flat on the table and tilted back.

This is a very short story, and I’m surprised at how quickly McGuane develops everything into a brisk, twisty story.

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