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New Yorker Fiction Review: "Motherlode" by Thomas McGuane

Issue: Sept. 8th, 2014

Story: "Motherlode"

Author: Thomas McGuane

Rating: Triple Meh

Review: You're not going to find someone under the age of 50 more willing to defend Tom McGuane than myself. I was introduced to his books in my late teens by my father, right around the time when I was getting into Hunter S. Thompson. McGuane's early stuff sounded, to me, like the kind of fiction HST would've written had he dedicated his life to fiction and not journalism, and so I loved it. Even if his later novels have gotten a little prosey and difficult to get through, his early works like The Sporting Club and Ninety-Two in the Shade are among my all-time favorite books; the books that have made and will make every move with me no matter where I go or if I ever read them again. I get positively giddy every time I see his name on the ToC of the New Yorker, because I know I'm in for a good yarn about lovably dysfunctional characters living in rural worlds that time has mostly forgotten, usually doing cool things I never get to do like hiking, fishing, hunting, roping cattle, etc. as part of their daily lives.

With that said...this story was a slog. I don't know if this was Tom McGuane attempting to write a noir story or just pulling something out of the dusty desk drawer and slapping a couple stamps on it, but this did not work for me.

Why? Tom McGuane is a writer of Literature, with a capital L. Among other ways, I define literature as writing in which the Plot takes a back seat to the development of character, either through the character's internal monologue or by how the narrator dives into the character's mind. There are other definitions, sure, but suffice it to say, that's the definition I'm working off of here. And in that sense, this story fails to do either one; McGuane is trying to write a plot-driven noir type story but it just doesn't come-off well. Not that it's over-burdened with character development, he just doesn't seem to be comfortable in the plot-driven vein. Which is actually a compliment.

Specifically, the way he handles time leaves something to be desired. The pacing of this story was a little screwed up and there were two instances when this almost lost me as a reader. Actually, it did lose me as a reader, but as I've anointed myself the resident NYer fiction reviewer, I have to read all of every story or my analysis doesn't count.

I didn't know what the main character, David, was all about or whether or not I should like him. I was confused about the scam that Ray, the main villian in the story, was trying to pull off, and even when I did figure it out, it didn't seem very complex or very interesting. Frankly the only interesting thing about this story was the last line, a neat cliffhanger that--as is the definition of cliffhanger--leaves the reader in doubt about what will happen next. Not a great deal of doubt, mind you, but doubt nonetheless. But overall the ending still seemed un-earned.

I don't know...McGuane is a regular NYer fiction writer, and so he steps up to the plate 3-5 times per year. He's going to throw up a dud every once in a while. This story will not change my opinion of Tom McGuane's writing one iota and, if it's your first time reading his stuff, I recommend you forget about this one and try again. It'll be worth it.

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