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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.

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