Chester Hunnicutt Pomeroy, the spiritually incinerated protagonist and narrator of Panama begins his prolonged, though hilarious, howl of despair by telling us that he is working "without a net" for the first time….
The statement could stand as a one-paragraph preface explaining what Thomas McGuane has attempted to do in this, his fourth and most relentlessly honest novel. This is not to say his previous books, The Sporting Club, The Bushwhacked Piano, and Ninety-Two in the Shade were dishonest or untruthful. They were, rather, less personal and more artful—taut, brilliantly written pieces whose style often called attention to itself and away from the characters it was meant to convey.
That style, sometimes compared to Hemingway's, sometimes to Camus', was McGuane's "net." In Ninety-Two in the Shade especially, you sensed that language was being used as a barrier against the horrifying void McGuane perceives as lurking at the heart of contemporary American life. Although Panama is as well written as its predecessors, its first-person point of view endows it with a greater directness; and the book not only gives us a look at the void, it takes us down into it. We join Chester Pomeroy in a free-falling voyage through his own dark interior, a journey that would be fascinating, something to write home about, were it not so absolutely frightening….
The setting is the same as in Ninety-Two in the Shade: Key West, the...
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There is a lot of hassling in this book of family and friends ["Panama"], and it is all written up in a blowsy first-person prose that goes in all directions and winds up being, basically, a kvetch: "I stood on the toilet and looked out at my nation through the ventilator fan." (pp. 34, 36)
As I understand it, Mr. McGuane likes to function as a sort of counter-chamber of commerce for Key West; and I believe he succeeds at that admirably. The sense of place in his novel is hot, sleazy, uncomfortable; and all the characters seem a little addled, and nasty, and dull, especially when they are talking to one another….
From what I have pieced together, the novel is called "Panama" because that is where Chet and his girlfriend Catherine once had a high old time and ended up getting married, in the good old days. At the end of this novel they seem about to split for good, and I wasn't clear if that was sad, or not, because they certainly seemed to be getting on each other's nerves a lot….
I'm sure it would work better in the movies, where you could have a stoned-out cameraman taking pictures and everybody would say that those casual sliding shots and lackadaisical bits of dialogue were art. (p. 36)
Richard Elman, "Fiction Roundup: 'Teen Angel'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 19, 1978, pp. 34, 36.
Gary L. Fisketjon
Stomping Thomas McGuane is as rewarding to some critics as ranking him with all sorts of Famous Writers is to others. His earlier novels, The Sporting Club, The Bushwhacked Piano, and Ninety-Two in the Shade, lent themselves to this double-barrel treatment—and are regarded as annoyingly adolescent (mediocre Hemingway high on macho and drugs) or hilariously brilliant (superbly crafted with a strange new style). McGuane may be bound for glory, but it remains uncertain whether his final destination is the reform school or the literary tradition.
In truth, those novels are hilarious, often brilliant, and positively adolescent—a state preferable to the solemnity that usually weighs down such tales of young men trying, after a fashion, to become grown men. Indeed, the serious business in those books grew out of and was made palatable by the writer's wise-acre intelligence. In Panama, McGuane as smartass-at-large is less in evidence; instead, there is someone who has aged considerably and, in the process, exchanged motley clothes for the hair-shirt of uncompromised honesty.
The guide on this first-person nightmare is Chester Hunnicutt Pomeroy, who in the course of acting out on stage the twisted fantasies of an addled Republic, has amassed piles of money, squandered it with ease, and achieved a nearly total dissolution….
Panama opens shortly after the celebrated "depraved pervert" returns to Key West, home to his family for generations. Like the rest of McGuane's Rotarian America, Key West has undergone a sea-change in reverse: "Each time I go there something has changed. Today an old family jewelry store had become a moped rental drop; a small bookstore was a taco stand; and where Hart Crane and Stephen Crane had momentarily coexisted on a mildewed shelf was now an electric griddle warming a stack of pre-fab tortillas." But Catherine is here, and this novel is the record of their groping attempt at reconciliation. (p. 115)
The wonder of this quaalude soap opera is that Chet's mad disclosure does not preclude another, less subjective angle on his life and these times. Chet is both likeable and pathetic—likeable because he reacts instinctively and skill-fully against the ubiquitous vulgarity, pathetic because he has himself become a part of it. McGuane's eye for the specific bits that make up our collective ugliness has always been keen, but the concern of...
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Cutting a Byronic figure, Pomeroy [in Thomas McGuane's "Panama"] broods over his past and his problematical future, observes with loving disgust the change and decay all around him, and sidesteps the opportunities for solace with instinctive eccentricity….
With his assorted heartaches, his bad teeth, and his affection for boats, firearms, and cocaine, Pomeroy takes after previous McGuane heroes—his immediate predecessor, for example: Thomas Skelton of "Ninety-two in the Shade." He and Skelton share, among other traits, an obsession with the tie between father and son, their angle being filial….
The unanswered question of "Ninety-two in the Shade" emerges in "Panama" as a remote chance for deliverance. Meanwhile, Pomeroy pounds the transcendental beat with the sharp wits and eye for detail that can be expected in a man of McGuane's creating….
A McGuane man has yet to meet his match in a McGuane woman (a kind of Penelopean whore at her idealized best)—not an uncommon flaw in even the finest male literature. Still, there is a secondary character in "Panama," named Marcelline, who serves usefully more than once to revive the reader benumbed by an overdose of Pomeroy's self-absorption….
The madhouse outlook makes it hard to pull away from McGuane's prose for sober comment. What distinguishes the style, beyond its succinctness and eclectic diction, is the constant,...
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Donald R. Katz
When the alluvial chunk of time known as the "late 1960s/early 1970s" is embellished with chronological endpoints, the first three novels of Thomas McGuane—The Sporting Club …, The Bushwacked Piano …, Ninety-Two in the Shade … will fit easily into the newly defined period as registers of a singular state of mind. His books were believed by his acolytes to corroborate certain deeply held beliefs of the time which responsible people usually found antithetical to the health of the nation—the idea that there is no future, for instance. Friends bestowed a McGuane novel upon an initiate sporting smiles similar to the ones on the faces of those introducing a new drug. Like the unique characters he casts as heroes, McGuane was infamous.
McGuane's heroes are forever being thwarted by those who always prevail in the nation he calls "Hotcakesland": the little Nixons, cheaters lacking wit and charm, people who like money, and men with guns. The McGuane hero is discernible from other modern picaros—from the beat generation roadrunners bucking the existential formula, for instance—partly in that he is picky about the nature of the ineluctable thing he seeks. He is driving hard after some lost primeval virtue, trying to remember what Faulkner would have said he never even knew. For these young men, the overriding virtues are the old ones, the culled bits of frontier ethic and inviolate wilderness verities that used to define American manhood. None of them would be caught dead in a "relevant" university course.
"Memory," announces Chet Hunnicutt, a man who has none, in McGuane's new novel, Panama …, "is the only thing that keeps us from being murderers." It is this elusive quest for memory which keeps the heroes moving, occasionally toward the dangerous kinds of men and situations which are the bastions of the old things in these times….
McGuane's attitude toward his scrappy, eternally pained heroes lies somewhere between A. E. Houseman's often sloppy romanticism and the vicious viewpoint of Houseman's parodists ("What, still alive at 22," the best of them once jibed, "A fine upstanding man like you?"). His heroes are high-born renderings of the young people known in the late Vietnam War America as "the kids"; they are members of the generation upon whom centered a brief liberal political sentiment toward children who didn't want to die. The heroes are white boys of mildly mangled mind who labor under all the problems of toughness and manhood suffered by Hemingway's white boys and suffer all the tugging of primordial heartstrings of Faulkner's white boys, only to be thrown among the philistines of modern Hotcakesland. All they can hope for is enough disdain to rise above it, and all they can do is howl or die.
As our heroes careen through the hinterlands in search of the kind of America young men used to grow up with, fending off the constant interventions of solid citizens, they ski the high ridge of madness. Here is the salient characteristic of the McGuane man: the sheer romanticization of a lunacy verging on mild sociopathy and the contention that the observation of the secret beauty of one's impending madness is almost worth the pain. Vernon Stanton and James Quinn of The Sporting Club, Nicholas Payne of The Bushwacked Piano, Thomas Skelton of...
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