Ninety-Two in the Shade

by Thomas McGuane

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The Characters

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Thomas McGuane has a prodigious talent for creating amusing, vivid, flat characters. This is part of his comic talent. Some of Skelton’s fishing clients are masterfully sketched, for example, Mr. and Mrs. Rudleigh from Connecticut and Olie Slatt from Montana. Skelton’s very kinky family is a source of much amusement and laughs. Sometimes, the humor throws all verisimilitude to the winds—and this would be fine if Ninety-two in the Shade were a purely comic novel. Skelton’s home is the fuselage of an antique warplane; his father, who once established a whorehouse and owned a factory for blimps that flew the black flag of anarchism, voluntarily confines himself to the house and lives for months at a time in a bassinet that is covered with mosquito netting; Skelton’s mother is a former prostitute; his grandfather, Goldsboro Skelton, is one of the biggest crooks in Florida and somehow charms businesses into paying him graft and protection money. They are comic characters.

Yet Thomas Skelton is engaged in finding a reasonable vocation, even if only for half of his time (he would like to read and see his girlfriend during the other half), and in finding an identity. The novel half-comically and half-seriously follows his development, his search for the truth about himself and his family. It flirts with the tradition of the Bildungsroman. The characters are both comic and not comic, hovering between flatness and roundness. Readers who are willing to accept conventions in literature will have no difficulty in accepting these characters, and the author treats them with real skill. The reader less willing to accept novelistic conventions, however, will not believe many of the characters, although McGuane’s unique, dense style might carry him along.

Largely typical of McGuane’s treatment of character is Skelton’s girlfriend, Miranda. Fetching, desired by most men who encounter her, a schoolteacher who is both wholesome and sleeps around, she is a perfect creation of the 1960’s, and clearly the novel could not do without her. Her name points toward her conventional origin; just as a pastoral needs a Miranda or Sylvia and a Western needs its pretty schoolmarm, this novel needs Miranda. Again, readers who readily accept conventional characters (here a convention adapted to the 1960’s) will have no difficulty in accepting Miranda. Yet she hovers between an existence in solid, carnal life and as a confectioner’s cream puff.

Characters Discussed

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Thomas Skelton

Thomas Skelton, a young man who wants to become a self-employed fishing guide with his own boat. After returning to his native Key West in a drug-induced state of confusion, Skelton decides that his road to sanity demands that he become a fishing guide. He has made this choice by “elimination”; everything else he has tried or considered is either unappealing or beyond his talents. His determination is evident when he persists in his plan after Nichol Dance, one of the two established guides in the area, threatens to kill Skelton if he actually guides. Skelton does not take this threat lightly, knowing full well that Dance will do what he wants to do. He has the unique experience of living in a town where someone would enjoy taking his life. To economize, Skelton lives in an old airplane fuselage modified enough to serve as living quarters. There he reads books on fish and guiding, preparing for the day when he will only have to take clients one or two days a week, leaving the rest of the time for his own reading and fishing.

Nichol Dance

Nichol Dance, the fishing guide who threatens to kill...

(This entire section contains 661 words.)

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Skelton if he actually guides out of his dock west of Marathon. He has a history of violence produced by a quick temper and is mentally unstable enough to do what will also destroy himself. He does not seem to dislike Skelton but believes that he must follow through to maintain his reputation and credibility. Because he often contemplates suicide, shooting someone else is not an especially momentous occasion to him.

Faron Carter

Faron Carter, another fishing guide, who works with Dance when necessary. Although he does not approve of Dance’s threat and perhaps does not fully believe it, he does nothing that might make Dance change his mind. His domestic life is in a shambles: His wife, an oversexed woman who tries to relive her days as a high school cheerleader, is a compulsive buyer who keeps Carter in debt and embarrassed from numerous repossessions. To help balance this problem, he seems to find pleasure in the activities of the waterfront, which include Dance’s violence, threats, and pranks.

Goldsboro Skelton

Goldsboro Skelton, Thomas Skelton’s grandfather. He has become wealthy and influential from a life of graft and manipulation on the fringes of politics, having learned “to work the gaps of control that exist between all the little selfish combines.” He is feared for both his power and his eccentricity. Goldsboro offers to finance Thomas’ guide business, but he gets pleasure from threatening to withdraw his support, then returning it without telling his grandson.

Miranda Cole

Miranda Cole, Skelton’s girlfriend and a seventh-grade geography teacher. Although at times intense, their relationship seems basically casual and headed in no particular direction; it is clear that Skelton’s plans to guide take precedence. Miranda is upset over Dance’s threat but knows that pleading with Skelton will do no good. Her fear about what may happen causes her to leave town for Skelton’s first day of guiding.

Skelton’s father

Skelton’s father, a man who has voluntarily chosen to live for a while bedridden behind mosquito netting. He, like his son, makes choices by elimination, having tried his hand at running guns, manufacturing blimps, and operating a whorehouse. From behind his mosquito netting, he watches football games on television and plays his violin. Eventually, he begins to slip out at night, catting around the seamier side of the town and waiting for the right moment to talk with his son in hopes of dissuading him from pursuing his plan.

Skelton’s mother

Skelton’s mother, a former whore in her husband’s whorehouse. She is an unfortunate woman, in the same family with three abnormal men. She has no influence on these men and functions mainly as an excuse for them to come together at her house on occasion.


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Objections raised against McGuane's rendering of female characters are less cogent when applied to Ninety-Two in the Shade. A woman can still suffer sexual objectification in this novel — Jeannie Carter, majorette become charge card addict, is referred to as "a simple pink cake with a slot" — but her role is accepted with a certain amount of awareness and choice on her part, and, taken as a fictive maneuver, this flatness of characterization is not nearly as pervasive here as in McGuane's earlier novels. Skelton's lover Miranda is especially noteworthy in this respect. In control of her own sexuality, unwilling to participate in the more egregious of Skelton's follies, and finally somewhat enigmatic in her independence, Miranda is the most fully developed female character in McGuane's first three novels. The coming to grips with that independence, on the part of a bewildered male, later forms the basis of Nobody's Angel (1981) and Something to be Desired (1984).




Critical Essays