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New Yorker Fiction Review: "Hubcaps" by Thomas McGuane

Thomas McGuane
Issue: April 21, 2014

Thomas McGuane is personal favorite of mine, as you might know from past blogs (oh, sure...), but I've been slightly less than impressed with his New Yorker fiction up to this point. Here, however, we have a charming, fun little tale set in the late 40s to early 50s about a kid named Owen who has loving (though alcoholic) parents on the verge of divorce, is obsessed with stealing hubcaps, has a mentally disabled friend named Ben, and in trapped in that most awkward of awkward phases of life: the "tweenage" years, between childhood and adolescence.

Owen's life is a confusing place from which he seeks shelter in his love of baseball, the outdoors, and of stealing hubcaps. His parents are heavy drinkers who get tipsy, if not sloshed, most afternoons and let him ramble as he pleases throughout the neighborhood and the woods. On the bus to school every day he is menaced by "the twins," a pair of precocious sisters who "run the show" as it were, playing psychological games with the less well-equipped of their peers, like Owen and Ben. Owen finds a pet turtle and keeps it with him constantly, cutting a false bottom in his lunchbox so he can take the turtle to school. These and other adventures adorn Owen's life so that he does not become overwhelmed with the craziness of his parents divorce.

McGuane does a really great job of detailing the nooks and cranny's of Owen's mental life from a close third-person perspective, giving me the impression that McGuane himself had a pretty interesting childhood and/or is just, flat-out, an interesting person who can skillfully re-imagine the complex inner life of a kid who has not grown up enough to even know that he's confused. And I think that's the magic of this story.

The story's sort of revolving, swirling narrative style mimics the confusion we feel as children. The adult world seems to swirl somewhere above us -- decisions get made for us, we go where we're told, or we don't and we get in trouble for it, dinner ends up on the table, the world turns -- and we have the dim, subconcious awareness that we are not in control, so we control what we can. We play video games, we collect coins, we immerse ourselves in sports, we -- without realizing it -- practice at being people, meanwhile time marches on and pushes us toward adulthood whether we want to go there or not.

Hubcaps illustration, by Radio
This is a different side of McGuane I've not seen before. Most of his stories feature dysfunctional adults; it's interesting to see him tackle the landscape of childhood -- on which dysfunctional adults are formed. He clearly has a "goal" or principle in mind here, and I'd say he nails it.

Side Note: In the issue, the story is accompanied with a super cool illustration by a South African design collective called Radio. They don't display the full image on the online version of the story -- probably because Radio doesn't want it given away for free, which I can understand. Check out some of their stuff here.

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