Skip to main content

New Yorker Fiction Review #158: "Papaya" by Thomas McGuane

From the August 22, 2016 issue of The New Yorker...

Thomas McGuane is one of my favorite writers specifically because of his early novels The Sporting Club and Ninety-Two in the Shade and generally for his intelligent, poetic fiction and non-fiction about the outdoors, eccentric people from the West, and about growing older and facing gracefully the task of maintaining one's optimism and spirit in the face of a shortening time-span on earth.

That said, the stories he's contributed to The New Yorker over the past four years have been all over the place in terms of quality, from the mildly entertaining to painfully under-cooked. Therefore it is with trepidation that I approach a piece of short fiction by this man, especially when it appears between the pages of the NYer.

Putting all that aside, "Papaya" was an outstanding piece of fiction. Perhaps McGuane has been reading this blog and decided to step-up his game. Haw! But really, what we have here is a rich and somewhat sentimental tale whose character is well-developed and multi-dimensional, even in a very short amount of space, and a story whose "meaning" is clearly apparent but not forced upon us.

It is the story of a man named Errol, who lives in Key West and, after a routine encounter with a friend in his neighborhood, thinks back to the time they met, which also coincides with the inflection point on which Errol's life changed and, you might say, truly began. Apparently, as a young man, Errol found himself shipwrecked on a remote Bahamian island, only to be "rescued" by a local woman who put him to work fertilizing her papaya trees for a few weeks until she negotiated passage for him on a tomato boat headed to Florida. Along the way Errol meets two Cuban immigrants who will become his lifelong friends and neighbors, settling in Key West.

To me what is most memorable about this story is the way Errol looks back from his perch as a successful middle-aged adult to a precarious and seminal point in his life, the point at which his old life, his youth, ended and his new life began. Really, we all have such a point in our lives, and it comes at various ages and may even happen a few times in life. But it happens when we become "shipwrecked" -- literally or figuratively -- and hit rock bottom and agree to accept help from any source that presents itself. It is when we learn to stop egotistically attempting to change the course of rivers, and instead learn to start flowing with them.

Says Errol, in conversation, before he launches into his flashback: "I had nowhere to go. My boat had been stolen. I was running away, and I didn't want to go back. I didn't have anything."

"You let that woman make a slave of you!"

"I must have needed it."

Whether or not he needed to be put to work on a small papaya farm, who knows. But what he needed was a wake-up call, a scare, and a reason to want to get back to the world and become an adult. And he got it.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

New Yorker Fiction Review #146: "Three Short Moments in a Long Life" by John L'Heureux

Issue: May 9, 2016

Story: "Three Short Moments in a Long Life" by John L'Heureux

Rating: $

Review: I feel like this is a somewhat tired technique, straight out of Creative Writing 101: write a story consisting of three or four different snapshots or snippets out of a character's life at different ages, sort of like a series of written photographs. Fun perhaps, but strikes me as a bit amateurish. However, I also think L'Heureux succeeds here by pushing it a bit further, playing with the character's tentative attempts at something close to faith -- in childish, adult, and mature adult ways -- and tying all three "Short Moments" together in a subtle and readily decipherable way.

L'Heureux's prose and his frank humor and his ability to glorify and find the meaning in the mundane events and thoughts of every day life, and thereby turn the life of an ordinary person into a drama with meaning and significance puts me in mind of John Irving. As well a…

Water Review: San Pellegrino 250ml Bottle

Damn you, tiny little bottle of San Pellegrino. So little. So cute. But what are you really good for other than to make me wish I had a full bottle of Pellegrino? 
Good as a palate cleanser after a nice double espresso, I will give it that. But little else. The suave yet chaotic burst of Pellegrino bubbliness is still there, but with each sip you feel the tragedy of being that much closer to the end of the bottle, that much faster.

This is a bottle of water made specifically for the frustrated, for the meticulous, for the measurers among us with a penchant for the dainty. This water does not love you in the wild, on a sunny porch or with the raucous laughter of friends. No...much the opposite. Whatever that may be.

Best drunk in tiny, tiny sips, while forcing oneself through an unreadable and depressing Russian novel one does not want to read but feels one should, on a cold, wet day in December that promises four months of gloom and depression...or in pairs or threes and poured over …

New Yorker Fiction Review #151: "The Bog Girl" by Karen Russell

From the June 20 issue...

My loyal readers (if there are still any, which I doubt) will know I'm usually not a fan of Magical Realism, which, as you may also know, is Karen Russell's stock in trade. That said, there's nothing I love more than having my antipathy for magical realism shattered by an awesome story like "The Bog Girl."

Briefly, an Irish teenager discovers the body of a young woman who as been buried in a bog for over 2,000 years and begins to date her. What more do you need, right? If I'd read that one-line description somewhere else, and wasn't on a mission to review every New Yorker short story, I doubt I'd have read "The Bog Girl." But maybe I should start doing a George Costanza and do the opposite of everything I think I should do.

Where Russell succeeds here is in two main areas: 1.) Making us really love Cillian, the teenager who falls in love with the bog girl, and 2.) pulling the unbelievable trick making the characters…