Ninety-Two in the Shade

by Thomas McGuane

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Themes and Meanings

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Although the discussion of the novel’s action and characters might indicate that it is second-rate, it is not. McGuane has been compared to Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Thomas Pynchon, and the main reason for the comparisons is his style, a certain richness and seriousness that it expresses. The style is totally unlike those of the three authors mentioned above: It is a combination of very creative, original metaphors and wry, satiric concision. It is this style that holds the novel together and lifts it above the domain of superficially exciting, forgettable commercial reads, and it is the style—not the characters or action—that penetrates the contours and textures of contemporary American life. Although the characters may be two-dimensional, the style is three-dimensional and closely follows real thoughts:Now she is in the tub with him. They struggle for purchase against the porcelain. The window here is smaller and interferes not at all with the smoky swoon of half-discovered girls in which Skelton finds himself. In his mind, he hears Lovesick Blues on the violin. He reaches for a grip and pulls down the shower curtain, collapses under embossed plastic unicorns. The shaft of afternoon light from the small window misses in its trajectory the tub by far; the tub is in the dark; the light ignites a place in the hallway, a giant shining a flashlight into the house. A rolled copy of the Key West Citizen hits the front porch and sounds like a tennis ball served, the first shot of a volley . . . Traffic bubbles the air. Skelton thinks that what he’d like is a True Heart to go to heaven with.

Often the style is wry, biting, somewhat nihilistic:By dint of sloth, nothing had set in. And Skelton had been swept along. The cue ball of absurdity had touched the billiard balls in his mind and everything burst away from the center. Now the balls were back in the rack. Everyone should know what it is to be demoralized just so everyone knows what it is to be demoralized.

The throwaway flipness, the wryness are largely justified because they reflect the attitude and thoughts of the protagonist. On the other hand, this same style carries over to other characters where it is less justified—there, one can speak of McGuane’s style:Every night on TV: America con carne. And eternity is little more than an inkling, a dampness . . . Even simple pleasure! The dream of simultaneous orgasm is just a herring dying on a mirror.

Much of the novel is devoted to satirizing popular culture at large, advertising, small business, franchises, cheerleaders, and so on. Ninety-two in the Shade can be compared to other satires on provincial life, such as Manuel Puig’s Betrayed by Rita Hayworth (1968) or Heartbreak Tango (1969). Yet McGuane is not as compassionate as Puig: His satire has a truculence reminiscent of the 1960’s, a constant tinge of outrage and nonacceptance that explains his frequent ironic references to “the republic” (which means contemporary America) or to “democracy” between quotes. Is McGuane a serious critic of contemporary culture? He is certainly a critic of its superficial manifestations. Sometimes his satire has a real object. Sometimes, however, it becomes petrified in a stance of naysaying that has no real object, and any moral outrage is merely a vague blur. Here is where the philosophy of the author is nihilistic. It might reflect the temporary stage of his youthful protagonist, but at many points in the book Skelton’s attitudes tend to blend with those of the author—they are not kept distinct.

At the periphery of...

(This entire section contains 896 words.)

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the novel, McGuane hints at various possibilities of purity, of generosity. His characters have dreams. When a game fish puts up a good fight, Skelton prefers to let it go. His mother is generous. It is the function of the style to keep those dreams and possibilities present. Also, Skelton’s choice of vocation, his stubborn desire to become a fishing guide, is a genuine, positive vision—it makes sense in terms of his talents, a past interest in biology, and a concern for fair play. The proper, probing question to ask about the novel is, What thwarts these positive impulses? Is it American commercial culture in general or a somewhat eccentric individual, a killer in the form of Nichol Dance? Neither—no connections are made between Dance and the commercial culture so consistently satirized throughout the novel. The final confrontation, being foreordained and prejudged, answers no questions whatsoever; it is swift, much too swift probably, and comes as an anticlimax. So once again one returns to the question, What is it that kills the positive impulses in the novel?

Although the question is never clearly framed by the author, and although any answer must be speculative, perhaps it is the author himself who bears responsibility. The wry, truculent tone does not entertain the possibility that these positive impulses might survive or even that they should be taken seriously. Or, perhaps, the author has calculatedly written a commercial novel—hence, this kind of question is out of place, that is, beyond the conventions and legitimate expectations of such a book. The novel is a striking but mixed performance: The style is brilliant, the action and plot violent yet conventional and somewhat superficial, the philosophy a peculiar, uneasy mixture of laughter and nihilism.


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Given the total failure of the culture's promises toward sustenance and meaning, McGuane's novel turns instead to the question of the individual, and to the alternatives possible for that individual in the face of social forces bent on his invalidation. But Skelton's desire to become a sport fishing guide in the Keys — a decision made solely because it's what he is "good at" — garners immediate opposition from a rival guide, Nichol Dance. Dance plays an elaborate practical joke on Skelton, who retaliates by burning Dance's boat to the water; Dance then forbids Skelton to guide on pain of death, a promise he ultimately keeps. The point that finally emerges here is that the agon between Skelton and Dance revolves around the delicate question of necessity: While unjustifiable in terms of conventional morality, it moves forward with the inevitable tread of Greek tragedy.

The title of Ninety-Two in the Shade refers to the conditions existing at the time of Dance's first murder, of a schizoid "exercise boy" who terrorized Dance in his bar in Kentucky. By emphasizing the terrible neutrality of the universe with respect to human desires and decisions, McGuane makes it possible to justify Dance's killings as the necessities of a life where a man "sure had to hack his way through a lot of lunch meat." But at the same time McGuane problematizes the issue through Dance's own self-justification: his demands for what he calls "credence" deteriorate quickly into stagy tough talk. The attempt to escape the negations of Hotcakesland is fast subsumed by cornball mannerisms, the discourse of the B-grade Western.

Skelton, on the other hand, fares every bit as badly. Unable to synthesize the success of his huckster grandfather and the failure of his neurasthenic father with his own aimlessness, Skelton instead discourses on the metaphysics of the power drill, which, in its capacity to transfer the hole of the wall socket to uncounted holes wherever one wants them, stands as a fascinating and complex intermediary apparatus that engenders only more emptiness. In his rush to be a victim, Skelton seemingly forgets his own advice that "life looked straight in the eye was insupportable, as everyone knew by instinct." Although his willingness to play out the drama with Dance is offered as final answer to the "question of his conviction or courage," McGuane immediately ironizes all such questions, and the need for their asking, when he tells readers that "this was not theater; and Dance shot him through the heart anyway."