Sunday

Slippage, Daydreams: Killer Foreshadowing in Thomas McGuane's Ninety-two in the Shade

The central conflict running through Thomas McGuane’s entertaining early novel Ninety-two in the Shade is that a man named Nichol Dance has promised to kill the protagonist, Skelton, if the latter follows through on his intent to become a flyfishing guide on Key West. Apparently, it's a pretty competitive business environment.  

The story begins humorously, but not too far into it we get a flashback to the time a few years earlier when — in a bar, after repeated provocation— Nichol Dance shot an “exercise boy.”  The implication is obvious: despite the fact that Dance is a regular guy, he has a murderous streak and is capable of carrying out his threat to kill Skelton. 

Then we have this passage:
On Big Pine key, the first light of day passes through the high breezy forest.  A key-deer buck, the size of a dog, places four perfect scarab hoofs on route A1A and is splattered by a Lincoln Continental four weeks out of the Ford Motor Company, carrying three admirals bound to Miami and a “kick-off breakfast” for a fundraiser.  The taillights elevate abruptly at the Pine Channel Bridge and are gone.  The corporate utopia advances by a figure equal to the weight of the little buck divided by infinity; the Reckoning advances by a figure equal to the buck multiplied by infinity.  A funeral wake of carrion birds, insects, and microorganisms working assiduously between bursts of traffic takes the little deer home a particle at a time.  
The author obviously intended the above paragraph to carry some symbolic weight, as it stands alone surrounded by white space.  But why is it significant? 

It’s an image of death, obviously, a rather serious image despite the whimsical tone, told from a distant, omniscient point of view.  You have the uncaring admirals. You have references to infinity and the ruthless silliness of contemporary society, two of the book’s frequent themes.  But mostly, I think, the passage is there to increase the dramatic tension that's already present in the narrative. 

This it accomplishes in an oblique but powerful way, emphasizing the point made in the preceding flashback to Nichol Dance’s murder of the "exercise boy."  Death is near. It happens every day, and it happens to innocent creatures.  Skelton better watch his step, the reader is bound to think. The narrator is serious about this death thing.

A similar sensation is created by the following passage:
Slippage, daydreams: the eye is almost never on the ball.  Skelton could not go to the bathroom.  If you plug up a man’s ass, he thought, you will probably shut off his brain.  He recalled his own figments, Don and Stacy, the People of the Plains.  A knock on the door of their flatlands house.  Stacy calls: “Don?”
 “What?" 
“There is somebody out here with a terrible swift sword.” 
This may be a little more obvious than the key-deer paragraph, but given the context, I found it powerful.  It marks the beginning of the end of the novel, an unmistakable cue that the narrative is now going to accelerate forward to the conclusion.   The reader proceeds with a heightened feeling of foreboding and the near-inevitability of Skelton’s murder.  There's something about Don and Stacy, these two generic innocents confronting doom; this average Midwestern couple coming up against the angel of death.  It’s spooky.

McGuane is good at creating and maintaining narrative tension.  His novels follow a single main story line, usually a self-aware male protagonist plunging himself deeper and deeper into trouble almost—but not quite—against his will.   The books are a pleasure to read because they’re humorous and deadly serious at the same time, whimsical but truthful.   There’s never a trace of sentimentality, yet all the characters, even the antagonists, are highly sympathetic.   

I actually prefer his less flaky later books, but despite its occasional silliness Ninety-two in the Shade is a fictional tour-de-force, blending philosophy, humor, and an irresistibly suspenseful plot.