Thomas McGuane, “Hubcaps” (Short Story)


Read “Hubcaps” at The New Yorker website (April 21, 2014, issue).

I was blah about this story at first. It was competently, smoothly written, but felt familiar. Another story about an American boyhood rendered nostalgic by baseball and cigarettes, divorce and indifference, parents breaking through their conventionality in order to disappoint their children. It’s familiar, maybe, because it’s true, but it’s nonetheless familiar.

But I’m being blasé about the competence. Competence is exactly what I’m trying to study. What makes this story competently written? There was one paragraph that struck me because it was something I wouldn’t have thought of to write. Being not particularly necessary to the mood or plot of the story, it nonetheless crystalizes the narrative and demonstrates exactly the kind of thing I’m missing:

Mr. Kershaw was an agricultural chemist for the state–a white-collar position that was much respected locally–but, despite his sophisticated education and job, he was a country boy through and through, with all the practical and improvisatory skills he’d acquired growing up on a subsistence farm. He wore bib overalls on the weekends and had a passion for Native American history. He was interested in anything from the remote past.

So far so good. I could have written something like that, albeit with more clumsiness.

He had a closet full of Civil War muskets that had been passed down through his family and a cutlass given by a slave on the Underground Railroad to a forebear who had run a safe house on the way to Canada. This same forebear, by family legend, while pretending to help find a runaway, had pushed a Virginia slave hunter out of a rowboat and held him off with an oar until he drowned.

And that, that last part especially, is just too specific and unusual and plausible to be imagined. Or, if it was imagined, it makes you stand back and think, Damn. How did that come to him? And how did he know to put it in there? More likely he’d heard something similar from someone else and decided it fit his story, his conception of Mr. Kershaw. Perhaps Mr. Kershaw is even based on said acquaintance. Either way, the fitting in is a masterstroke, too. He has to do it seamlessly, and he does.

A story is made with just these small touches that hardly anyone notices, and unmade by their lack.

Perhaps the most unusual or memorable part about McGuane’s piece is its ending. Not what happens, per se, but the way it both expands and contracts in the final paragraph:

Life went on as though nothing had happened, and nothing really had happened. Ben was the twins’ plaything for several months, and then something occurred that no one wanted to talk about–if one twin was asked about it, the question was referred to the other–and Ben had to transfer to a special school, one where he couldn’t come and go as he pleased, or maybe it was worse than that, since he was never seen at home again or in town or on the football field with his water tray. Owen continued to attend the football games, not to watch but to wander the darkened parking lot, building his hubcap collection. As time went on, it wasn’t only the games: any public event would do.

This last passage is a break from the story’s narrative in tone and content. We had just left off with Ben’s betrayal of Owen, the kind of cruel selling out in childhood that often makes for interesting storytelling because it is a stand-in for, or distraction from, something more serious. There is darkness in this last paragraph. What happened to Ben? What did he do? It is perhaps shameful enough, horrible enough not to say in decent company. Or in front of anyone. The narrator (so close to its subject the careless reader often forgets it’s not written in first person) never says how Owen is affected–not directly, of course, but we know what stealing hubcaps is supposed to mean. All of this is confounded with what is going on with Owen’s parents, particularly his father and his alcoholism. Then there is Mr. Kershaw, important because he takes an interest in Owen, important also because he is Ben’s father. Is it too much for the story to hold? Not at all. It’s meant to swirl together, to culminate in this moment of betrayal, and its understated aftermath.

In preparation for writing this entry, I did a little research on Thomas McGuane. Having never heard of him before reading “Hubcaps,” I clearly didn’t realize what a celebrated figure he is. Inheritor of Norman Maclean? Predecessor of David James Duncan? I’ll have to look more into his work and see.



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