Ninety-Two in the Shade

by Thomas McGuane

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McGuane’s third novel, Ninety-two in the Shade, is set in steamy Key West in the world of sportfishing. On the surface, the plot deals with a turf battle between two fishing guides, old-timer Nichol Dance and newcomer Thomas Skelton. The real focus of the novel, though, is a common McGuane theme: the unrest of the protagonist (Skelton) and his search for something that will allow him to remain sane and escape the decadence of American civilization.

Thomas Skelton has quit college as a marine biology major and wants to become a fishing guide at his home of Key West. His despair at what he sees around him, however, has led to drug use, crazy behavior, and the process of discovering a career by elimination. Sportfishing seems to be the only occupation that will keep him sane. The only problem with his decision is that Nichol Dance, one of the guides west of Key Marathon, feels threatened enough to warn Skelton not to guide in Dance’s territory. The conflict revolves around these two men: Dance feels that he must establish “credence”; Skelton feels that his only hope for sanity is to guide.

A series of events leads to a direct confrontation between Dance and Skelton. While in prison for attacking Ray the dockmaster, Dance sends his clients, the Rudleighs from Connecticut, to Skelton. During their excursion, Dance (released from prison because Ray did not die) “kidnaps” the Rudleighs from Skelton’s skiff as both a practical joke and a warning. In retaliation, Skelton burns Dance’s boat, his only possession of any value; Dance tells Skelton he will kill him if he guides west of Marathon.

Key West and guiding are the ends of the road for both men. Skelton knows that Dance is capable of carrying out his threat, but he orders his boat and continues his plan to guide because there is nothing else for him to do. Dance knows that killing Skelton will, at the least, put him in prison for life, but the alternatives (if Skelton guides) are suicide or loss of credence. Skelton’s girlfriend, father, and grandfather all ineffectually try to dissuade him from his plan.

As in all McGuane’s novels, there are problems between fathers and sons. In Ninety-two in the Shade, three generations of Skelton males are at odds with one another. Although Goldsboro Skelton finances his grandson’s boat, Thomas is disgusted by his grandfather’s lust for power and autocratic manner. Skelton’s father feels the same way about Goldsboro and the world that Thomas does, and his method of coping is basically the same. He has also looked for a career by the process of elimination, finally withdrawing to a mosquito-net-covered bed where he watches television and plays works of Jean Sibelius and Hank Williams on his violin.

Skelton’s behavior may seem aimless, nonproductive, and even harmful. The method behind his madness, however, is an effort to remain sane by not focusing on the deterioration around him. Skelton has come to Key West to find peace, but he must deal with trendy suburbanites, the Rudleighs, who force the guides to break the rules for sportfishing. He sees a former guide now working as a salad chef at Howard Johnson’s because the bank foreclosed on his boat. One of the best fishing lanes is in the flight pattern for a military landing field, and the shattering roar of low-flying aircraft dominates everything at frequent intervals. As part of its efforts to promote tourism, the Chamber of Commerce holds a pie-eating contest in which the contestants gorge themselves to the point of vomiting, the winner to...

(This entire section contains 707 words.)

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receive a day’s guiding from Dance. Skelton can handle these intrusions into his world only by becoming completely involved with guiding.

Other signs of decadence are less obvious but insidious. Skelton’s grandfather has become “successful” by exploiting the gaps that exist between deals for power and profit. His father is judged a crackpot and a failure for refusing to compete in a country he believes to be decadent. Within this setting, Skelton and Dance try to stay sane by doing the only thing left for them to do: work as fishing guides and protect their space.