Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Short-a-Day: Thomas McGuane's "The Good Samaritan"

Originally published in The New Yorker, April 25, 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 90.

What makes someone good? Barney, a temporary ranch-hand hired by an accidentally injured Szabo, is an efficient, respectable man who silently inserts himself into taking care of the work assigned him, slowly branching out to a brief affair with Szabo's somewhat lonely mother, and even going so far as to visit Szabo's federally imprisoned son, David. Though his odd involvement and direct -- offensively so -- talk throws Szabo, the man manages to improve everything he comes into contact with . . . right before he steals a valuable painting from Szabo's mother. On the other hand, Szabo's diligent, hard-working, and stagnant approach to life has led his ex-wife to take crazy risks (and eventually divorce him), leads his customers to think he's crazy, and has left his son feeling alienated . . . even though he regularly visits the prison, and makes it clear that David's always welcome to return home. Depending on the situation, any man can be good or bad, and even the theft of the painting isn't an awful thing -- he convinced the mother to purchase insurance.

McGuane's story reads smooth as butter, neatly introducing characters with only as much as is necessary at any given time (we don't learn much about Melinda until late in the story), and filling the story with unembellished details that sing in their ordinariness: "His mother sat in the living room doing Sudoku in front of a muted television, a cigarette hanging out of the corner of her mouth" and "He felt the significance of each step as he walked toward the tractor, marvelling at the sunlight on its green paint, its tires nearly his own height, its baler pert and ready." Note the relative lack of adjectives: there isn't a cluttered or confusing sentence throughout, though there are some winning colloquialisms. ("His late father, a hardworking tradesman, would have given Barney a wood shampoo with a rake handle.") Life comes as it comes to these folk, and Barney provides a good contrast between the simple people of the town who accept each new day with the grace of soaking in the sun and the "educated" people (he always claims to have a Ph.D.) who feel the need to keep claiming parts of the world as their own -- to name and to know, so to speak.

Plenty to enjoy in the awkward conversations shared between generations who are straining to see eye-to-eye, even as their priorities shift (at one point Szabo wishes he could fall easily into common anesthetics like television and NASCAR); plenty to think about in the moralities that are hinted at beneath the layers of simple banter and ordinary descriptions.

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