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...
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