Thomas McGuane’s Key West novels— Ninety-two in the Shade and Panama —are in a class of their own. They portray the volatile Key West of the 1970s, when a legion of do-it-yourself drug smugglers thrived and cocaine was plentiful, cheap, and, more or less, socially acceptable. McGuane’s heroes, Thomas Skelton and Chester Hunnicutt Pomeroy, chart that Key West with intelligence and recklessness, lust and candor, violence and acute observation. Since Hemingway in To Have and Have Not, no one has rendered the feel of the streets, shores, and waters of Key West so well as McGuane did in Panama.To read it today, thirty years after its publication, is to hear the bones of that not-so-distant place creaking beneath today’s clean veneer, to ghost-walk from lunch at La Lechonera to a fishing trip at the Cay Sal Bank, to watch kids playing at Astro City, to drink at the Full Moon Saloon, and to walk cross-town again and again in the mid-day sun from an overgrown Casa Marina to the oyster-shell paved parking lots between Caroline St. and the Gulf.
McGuane sold his Key West home in the early 1980s. He returned often to visit friends, and even joined our honorary board of directors. In 1984, he sat down with longtime KWLS board member, Liz Lear, for a conversation in the home of Bill Wright, also a former board member. They talk about Key West and why he left, about the threat of nuclear annihilation and the ocean, about writing, about writers, and about dogs. Originally published in Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review 36/2 (1986). Reprinted in Conversations with Thomas McGuane, edited by Beef Torrey, University Press of Mississippi (2007). Reprinted here with permission from Liz Lear.
This conversation took place in a house in Key West that McGuane had rented from fellow writer Bill Wright. It was a warm tropical night in March of 1984. We sat around a dining room table piled high with books and the just completed manuscript of Something to Be Desired. Through the open French doors a lighted pool glimmered and the soft breeze carried the floral scent of something nameless but sweet. From an adjacent room, the clear young inquiring voice of McGuane’s daughter Anne occasionally interrupted the story being read to her.
LL: I have always been intrigued with what attracts creative people to certain places. I wonder what or who brought them here and what makes them stay. Why are you in Key West?
TM: I first came to Key West as a boy with my father to go fishing. When I decided to come back here as an adult, it was because I associated the island with writers, reading, and writing.
American writers love exotic atmospheres, and yet really don’t want to live outside of the country. Key West is one of those places that allow them to have it both ways. It’s a southerly town without the burden of southern history. It’s intrinsically a nice place. I enjoy the ambience of a place where Spanish is spoken. I like that fecund smell the island has. I love to be out on the ocean: for better or worse, I’m still a sportsman and the ocean is one of the last frontiers where we can live in a civilized way next to that great wilderness.
LL: Did you always want to be a writer? When did you start?
TM: Yes. I always wanted to be a writer and I began when I was ten— at least to try.
LL: Did you ever do any other work?
TM: I never really made a living, of course. I worked as a boy and young man at odd jobs, the same kind of thing other kids did. I worked at a gas station. I worked as a cowboy— cowboy is too big a word for it: I worked on a ranch in an unskilled way. Then I went off to school and was just hell-bent to write, to read and write, and that’s it.
LL: I have just finished an intense McGuane re-read. I found your books just as fresh and vital now as they were at the time of publication. Most first books are supposedly heavily authobiographical. Is this true of your first book, The Sporting Club, and in reality did such a place exist?
TM: Absolutely not to the first part of your question. There was a club that was loosely the physical model, but in reality it was a very innocent little club: hunting and fishing. Quite a few Michigan people belonged to it, as did my family. I had very happy times there. I invented a “ship of fools” type environment— of course the real thing was never that.
The Sporting Club reflected a lot of literary preoccupations of those times: the interest in comic writing and black humor. There was a great wish for serious comic literature in those years. I know I craved it tremendously. I read people like Evelyn Waugh, Kingsley Amis, J.P. Donleavy, and Terry Southern. My book reflected that atmosphere, plus my own interest in rivalry and my morbid but comic fascination with violence.
I was intrigued by the Stanton-type character, a person who has cut the moorings and is really going too far; the madman fool so wonderfully portrayed by Marlowe, Cervantes, Gogol, and Melville, who have turned their world upside-down and tried to reassemble themselves. The only way I could see to handle it without getting a long face was to see its comic possibilities. I don’t think the truth is diminished because one finds it funny.
LL: Panama, I feel, was actually about six years ahead of its time. I found it even more disturbing the second time around, possibly because I came to it with more understanding. Reading the book I felt made me privy to the dark recesses of someone else’s mind. It was both exciting and frightening. I was glad I had the experience but I was relieved when it was over. Are you relieved that those times are over, and in writing the book did you release yourself from a lot of psychological burdens, guilts, and hurts?
TM: Yes, in both instances. I’m glad that era is over for me. One transmutes some of that into fiction and gets a form of release from doing so. It’s funny, Bill Wright has a copy of Panama here and I was reading in it today. I haven’t done that in a long time.
For a couple of reasons I still have pride in that book. The personal era, which may or may not have been shared by others, was announced in Ninety-two in the Shade and drew its final curtain in Panama: the hope of certain things as announced in Ninety-two and the despair for its accomplishment as announced in Panama. I’m excited that in two-thirds of a decade, one could examine the rise and fall of a dream, and that’s what those two books do. Even if that’s only known to me, I’m completely happy that I got it down.
I find it interesting that you think the book was ahead of its time. It was roundly attacked when it came out. It also received two of the best reviews I ever got, one in the Village Voice, and the other in The New Yorker, so it had people who felt strongly and positively about it. You know, it’s never been out of print and it seems to gain momentum and a wider readership all the time. I would say that with the almost epidemic spread of cocaine throughout American society, that book is going to seem scriptural to more and more people.
LL: I also saw a lesson in the book which I hope some will heed: don’t go down that road too far because it only leads to despair.
TM: It doesn’t really turn on drugs, it turns on egotism, stardom, or cocaine, whatever it is that keeps you from looking out and seeing the world and the people around you. That’s the thing that will get them in the end, just as it got Chester.
LL: You mention a writer friend in the book who provides a little sanity and good advice. At one point he says, “I’m getting off the rock. I love the rock but it’s a bad rock.” In real life you apparently shared his sentiments. In fact you sold your house and left town. Was this character based on Jim Harrison, to whom you dedicated the book?
TM: No. The burnt-out writer with little skeletal hands sitting watching the hotel burn, that’s me. Pomeroy is another part of me, it was one part of me talking to another.
LL: What about Don, the guardian angel. Was he another alter ego?
TM: Yes, this was my shadow.
LL: Why did you dedicate the book to Jim Harrison?
TM: Because Jim, as you know, is one of my oldest friends.
LL: You know, I really can hear him saying “get off the rock, I love it, but you’ve got to get off it.”
TM: Peculiarly, I think Jim is one of the people who didn’t “get” the book. I dedicated it to him, and do you know he never acknowledged that. It was years before I even knew whether he had read it or not.
LL: We all worry about the threat of nuclear war and the possible annihilation of the human race. In one of your books, I think Ninety-two, your hero says, “God, if they will only leave the ocean alone I can handle anything,” and “who on earth, slipping it to a truly desirable woman, can seriously interest himself in the notion that the race is doomed.” As a real survivor, Tom, do you honestly believe that?
TM: The language is comic of course, but within that, I acknowledge that in human questions there are orders of magnitude. On one hand it seems mathematically predictable that we are going to blow ourselves up and yet part of us insists that we will wriggle out of it somehow.
LL: So you see a glimmer of hope?
TM: There is ample evidence for continuance. In some perverse way we don’t buy the doom bit; maybe that in itself becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and we will survive.
LL: Do you revise as you go along?
TM: I revise as I go along. Sometimes I think I write so that I can revise. Revision is two-thirds of the effort.
LL: Do you write every day on a set schedule?
TM: No. when the project has come to life for me, then I write every day. Then there are long unhappy periods when I don’t write every day, these are unquestionably times to be avoided. Nothing goes well for me if I’m not writing.
LL: Do you keep a notebook or diary?
TM: Yes. I scribble things down, notions, things I think will be of great utility. They never are.
LL: Do you ever suffer from writer’s block and if so how do you overcome it?
TM: Yes. I think all writers do. I overcome it by forcing myself to adhere to regular work practices. Showing up to work at the same place and time every day, sooner or later this works for me; but for a time there it is painful.
LL: Some writers find starting the day confronted with an empty page very disconcerting; they will always try to leave half a page with which to start the new day. How do you handle this?
TM: I always try to leave off on a good note with the feeling that I’ve left something living there that will still be alive the next day. I try not to leave on a note of discouragement.
LL: Who are your favorite writers?
TM: I’m such an eclectic writer that I can’t give a fast answer to that. In the past, my heroes have been Twain, Stendhal, Aristophanes, and Stephen Crane. Among the contemporaries, of course, I read my friends, Jim Harrison, an Indian writer named Jim Welch— I’m talking about my favorites now— Robert Stone, and Phil Caputo. I don’t want to leave anyone out, but when I’m writing a book I forget everything … Walker Percy, Norman Mailer, Styron, and Raymond Carver.
LL: What about new ones, the young ones coming up, any that give you hope for the future of literature?
TM: It’s funny, the ones that seem young and coming up, like Raymond Carver, are close to my age. Barry Hannah, Raymond Carver, and Jayne Ann Phillips, they seem to me to be the newer voices coming up that I’m most excited about.
LL: Do you enjoy the company of other writers?
LL: Have other writers been supportive of your work or do you sense any feelings of competitiveness?
TM: Yes, they have been supportive and competitive— yes, but mostly in an invigorating way, not in an abrasive one.
LL: Flaubert said that we must love each other in our art the way mystics love each other in God. Do you think this sentiment exists today, or indeed do you think it ever has?
TM: I don’t think it exists today and I suspect that it never did. I think that writers, in so far as they feel beleaguerd within society, have a sort of comradeship that disappears when they are in a situation where they are entirely within their own world. For example, when we are in Montana we are all madly in love with each other because there a writer isn’t a highly esteemed individual. When we are in a place that is writer-dense, like Key West or New York, we tend to have our fangs out for each other to a degree, like any other competitive group. Every one wants to be acknowledged in that strange kind of writer’s pecking order. Maybe this statement is a bit strong; I think it’s both true and not true.
LL: Do you think it’s possible for a person to write like an angel and yet in every other level be a despicable person?
TM: It’s highly possible and in many instances a fact.
LL:If you had the opportunity to sit down with any writer either living or dead and discuss his or her writing and yours, who would that be?
LL: Are you a social creature?
TM: It’s kind of a moth and candle thing. I have spells when I feel quite social, then I’m overwhelmed and exasperated very suddenly and unpredictably, and want to get away from people entirely and think. I find that I can’t get much thinking done in an intense social situation. I get almost hunger jitters to get off and figure things out. I don’t think I’m unusual in that way. As I become more focused on absolutely what I want, in terms of my friends, my family, and my work, I’ve become more impatient with things that don’t fall into that category. I have figured out that life is short and I have a lot of work to do, and things that I want to do with my family. I often get maddened when I’m derailed unnecessarily by a not particularly interesting social situation.
LL: Someone once said that we go through life with a diminishing portfolio of enthusiams.
TM: F. Scott Fitzgerald. I’m not sure, but I think it’s either from that nauseating thing he wrote called The Crack-Up or his letters. Scott Fitzgerald went through life with a diminishing portfolio of enthusiasms. As an Irishman I recognize that as a sort of racial failure of the Irish, which is the horrible disappointment that youth passes and one’s dreams have not been fulfilled. I think the Irish are very prone to that, and the drinking Irish, the absolute worst. I don’t think there’s a more pusillanimous document in American literature than Fitzgerlad’s The Crack-Up. The gist of it is, “you all let me down and I’m going to be pathetic because you did this to me and I’ll do it on cue.”
I think it’s impossible not to go through life without some diminished enthusiasms, in the sense that they are diminished in their quality. Obviously, one discovers things you don’t want to do any more, so you stop doing them; presumably, the ones that remain, you do with greater skill, concentration, and ability.
LL: In one of your books, I forget which one, you used that Fitzgerald quote.
TM: I might once have thought of that line with approval. I probably did. I now think we are supposed to rise above that. I mean a forty-four year old man can’t wander among his friends and family and tell everyone how disappointed in life he is. I think that’s terrible.
LL: I get the distinct impression from your books that they are more than a little autobiographical. Are they?
TM: No. I’m using myself insofar as I think I’m good material, things that have happened to me or things I’ve seen, but I really use those as points of departure. We all start out with an image, something always catches the eye, the mind, it’s usually something that has happened to us, something out of our own lives and it might sustain us for half a book, but the art is there to be served and we go where that’s supposed to go, not where the paltry details of one’s life might dictate. I often use things that I’ve seen, that are true of me, a place to sort of lift the edge of the material so that I can enter.
LL: You are then always aware of the art?
TM: That’s part of the job.
LL: Someone said that you share a genius with Celine for seeing the disparate materials of everyday life as a highly organized nightmare. Is this true and do you continue to see things that way?
TM: I think that’s a polite way of saying “paranoia.” Yes, I think that’s true. In the book I’m working on now, the narrator reflects that the natural state of the universe isn’t heat, but cold. I think we all exist on a very fragile tissue of life and vitality. I’ve seen a ot of death close up; it can happen instantaneously. Remember last year when Annie was so ill. She was only four years old. The doctors said that one end of the spectrum of what she had was death. She was in perfect health when I left and a week later Laurie telephoned to say, hurry home, Annie’s in an oxygen tent. One realizes that you can walk out of a door— or that people you love can disappear like a puff of smoke. We are surrounded with that realization. I believe that very strongly. The other day a group of writers assembled for a photograph; this time next year probably some of them will have gone on to the next world. That’s not really paranoia, but at the same time I feel the pressure of it as a day to day reality. I remember the dates when people close to me died as if they were only a few hours ago. A favorite aunt died, then a week later her namesake, my sister, died; ten months later my father died and a short time ago my mother died. In the meantime several friends have died. I don’t really feel threatened by a sense of my own mortality, though I supoose we all are to a certain extent. I’m forty-four years old and I’m at the middle or end of my life. I don’t know which. I’ve experienced much and had a lot of years to feel full about. What really bothers me is that the people who haven’t had much chance to do things are just as subject to the arbitrary fall of the ax as I am. The sense of all that is a continuing force for me, the idea that we are all on the brink of eternity.
LL: Re-reading your books in quick succession brought to my attention something I might otherwise have missed. There’s a rather frightening image that develops from book to book. It starts very subtly in Bushwhacked Piano, suddenly it’s there and then it’s gone, like something seen out of the corner of the eye. You speak of hearing the pad of feet in the darkness downstairs and the sound of dogs or wolves or coyotes drinking out of the toilet bowl. In successive books , there is refernce to unseen dogs barking or coyotes howling like some kind of death knell. The climax comes in Nobody’s Angel with that hideous scene of a house littered with slaughtered and skinned coyotes.
TM: How marvelous! That’s very perceptive of you. That was something that crept up on me. I hadn’t realized that the man and wolf thing ran so deep in me. I love dogs and I know that they belong to humans, and yet they also belong to the wild, to the jackal side of the world that preys on humans when things fall apart. We have a very deep bond with dogs, but I know that if the bomb drops there will be packs of dogs feeding on our dead, charred bodies. I see this as a powerful image of what happens to our basic hard-won deals when the rest of the planet is falling apart.
LL: It doesn’t have any personal psychological significance that culminated in Nobody’s Angel; something you had finally worked out?
TM: I think it’s one of those things one never works out, either it’s there or it isn’t. Average people like Tio and his coyote hunting friends in Nobody’s Angel turned on the dogs of the world before disaster struck. They anticipated Armageddon.
LL: I have never thought of dogs in that context, pigs maybe. I remember reading that pigs were a common sight, rooting among the dead on the battlefields of the Civil War.
TM: I read a wonderful book last year by Franklin Russel called The Hunting Animal. There are some passages in it about hyenas that are just unbelievable; you recognize the dog family. Packs of hyenas will pull down an antelope on the plains; they are complete feeding machines. The minute they have slowed the creature to anything like a stop, they begin to feed; they don’t kill. The antelope just stands there gazing around at this mob of ravenous creatures who are literally eating it before it has had time to die.
People love dogs and dogs love people. Until people absolutely drop the ball; when dogs realize people have lost civilization, then they will become wild again and feed on people.