Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 997
Following The Sporting Club (1969) and The Bushwacked Piano (1971), Ninety-two in the Shade catapulted Thomas McGuane to literary stardom and announced his arrival on the larger American cultural scene. Concerned with the themes that McGuane would continue to explore in his fiction, Ninety-two in the Shade was especially memorable for its virtuoso language-play and its noirish vision of life in Key West. McGuane wrote and directed a film version of the novel in 1975, marking a departure point in his career. While many of his later books were well received (and, some have argued, he went on to mature as a writer), many critics consider The Bushwacked Piano and Ninety-two in the Shade to be his finest moments, full of energy and a sense of experimentation.
At times, McGuane channels Ernest Hemingway, the only other writer to write so passionately about Key West. The connection between the two authors does not end there, as McGuane is clearly influenced by Hemingway’s style (though he departs from it) and by his deep sense of values. Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not (1937), one of his most underappreciated and neglected works, is one of the sources for McGuane’s feverish vision of life at the bottom of the continental United States. Ninety-two in the Shade, like To Have and Have Not, is a study of American decay. The protagonist of To Have and Have Not, Harry Morgan, is an outlaw-hero who overcomes material poverty by demonstrating a wealth of spirit through his resourcefulness, self-reliance, self-command, and endurance. Thomas Skelton is, in a way, an updated version of Harry Morgan that better reflects his era, the late 1960’s.
While Morgan was resourceful and self-reliant, Skelton’s malaise represents a culture that has not learned its lesson. America has wallowed in the glories of excess, and Skelton’s spiritual emptiness signifies the death of the human being who lives by a code. Having wallowed in excess himself, having wandered around in search of his true calling, Skelton understands that a return to routine and ritual is his only chance at sanity. He wants to leave behind the hollowness of the promiscuous life he has been leading and return to the brutal reality of “real” life.
Like Hemingway, McGuane is deeply concerned with relationships between fathers and sons. Ninety-two in the Shade finds three generations of Skelton men in various states of disarray and decrepitude. Like Richard Gordon in To Have and Have Not, Goldsboro Skelton, Thomas’s grandfather, comes to represent despotism and blind thirst for power. Like his son, Skelton’s father has rejected Goldsboro and the rest of the world, but he has only been able to cope by remaining bedridden behind mosquito netting, watching television and playing the violin. He has instilled in his son a sense of failure, a sense that the only thing to do is to fade quietly away as the world unravels.
Skelton may come off as a frivolous slacker, but he understands that he must ignore the deterioration and decay that he witnesses daily if he is to keep sane. He also, like the lowliest of Hemingway heroes, has a careful code that does not involve kowtowing to swank yuppies such as the Rudleighs. All around him, Skelton sees excess. Tourists gorge themselves. Banks squash working people. What once must have been a peaceful island is destroyed by the shattering presence of military and civilian aircraft. Skelton is disgusted. If McGuane is deeply influenced by Hemingway, he also has quite a bit in common with Hunter S. Thompson, a documenter of American greed and excess. In Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream (1972), Thompson relies on the same sort of sensitivity to the dark realities of depraved America.
At the center of Ninety-two in the Shade is a deep sense that competition is to blame for America’s decadence and depravity. A generation that has been raised to believe that in order to win one must compete has reacted strongly against “healthy competition” as a birthright. Skelton’s father, for instance, is considered a failure and a lunatic for refusing to compete in a country that he believes has lost its way. Similarly, Raoul Duke, the protagonist of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, is hell-bent on exposing the cracks in the façade of competition.
Skelton, trying to keep his sanity in a different way than Duke, cannot avoid competition and so generates the bloody conflict that serves as the novel’s backbone. Nichol Dance challenges Skelton every step of the way. The novel, at times, resembles a thriller far removed from convention. Competition is the only source of suspense. As such, competition signifies the inability to find a free and peaceful space in the modern world. Skelton, like Duke, realizes that he is living in a ruined world where there will always be someone to challenge him.
The novel is, above all, a satire of American popular culture. In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, there was an explosion of advertising, promiscuity, franchises and chain stores, and a twisted sense of business and survival. Along with the fear of being annihilated by a nuclear bomb came the mentality that humanity’s time on earth was limited. Decadence has always existed, but nuclear threats and changing values ushered in a generation of spenders and wasters, gorgers and solipsists. McGuane’s vision of American greed and excess, like Hunter S. Thompson’s, is not compassionate. Stunted vision has done irreparable damage to the human consciousness and to the earth, McGuane seems to be saying repeatedly in different ways. He criticizes superficiality and phoniness, reminding readers always of the dark desire that humans have to compete and succeed at all costs. When Dance shoots Skelton at the end of the book, it is the first moment of true peace for Skelton. He has finally found a way to thwart the world, to escape, and to be free.
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