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.
from top left: James Merrill, Evan Rhodes, Edward Hower, Alison Lurie, Shel Silverstein, Bill Manville, Joseph Lash, Arnold Sundgaard, John Williams, Richard Wilbur, Jim Boatwright.
from bottom left: Susan Nadler, Thomas McGuane, William Wright, John Ciardi, David Kaufelt, Philip Caputo, Philip Burton, John Malcolm Brinnin.
How many words is a picture worth if its subjects have penned more than many thousands of bestselling words apiece, already read by tens of thousands of readers? If in their beach bags are five Pulitzer Prizes, a few National Book Awards, two Bollingen Prizes, and office stationery from the U.S. Poet Laureate?
Thanks to Bill Wright for loaning this excellent group portrait. Liz Lear arranged the event, at Hidden Beach. The photographer was Don Kincaid. Click here for a full-size version. Thanks to Liz Lear, Holly Merrill, and Don Kincaid for their help in identifying the authors.
Key Westers bemoan change. You should’ve seen it twenty years ago. You should have seen it last week. But look far enough, and you’ll see we’ve made a habit of proclaiming ruin. Still, it’s better here than not, and gems do turn up in what looks like faceless change. Today, it’s condominiums. Yesterday, it was the Navy. Here’s Elizabeth Bishop, in 1942:
Marjorie and I are leaving for Mexico on the fifteenth. We’re flying to Mérida, where we’ll stay awhile. Then we’re going up to Mexico City and then find a cool place—on a lake—to stay for the summer—in fact maybe for “the duration,” I don’t know. It is impossible to live here any longer. The Navy takes over and tears down and eats up one or two blocks of beautiful little houses for dinner every day. Probably the house on White Street will go, too.
The local build-up for the war was an unprecedented disruption, with thousands of young servicemen and the bustle of war preparations altering the pace of daily life. Though only a part-time resident, Bishop owned a home and had begun to feel at home here. These new transients shook her claim on the place. Who were these crass military men who displaced Miss Bishop?
One of them was 19-year-old James Schuyler, future Pulitzer-prize winning poet, “simply the best we have,” according to John Ashbery, and member of the so-called New York School of poets, along with Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, and Kenneth Koch. That’s Schuyler in the image above, enrolled in sonar school in Key West during the summer of ’43, a year after Bishop’s complaint. By delighful coincidence, Schuyler and Bishop worked on the base together as fellow patriots that summer. Neither was aware of the other, but Bishop wrote to Marianne Moore of her adventure in the Navy:
I first heard of the fist-fight between Ernest Hemingway and Wallace Stevens in KWLS co-founder Lynn Kaufelt’s book, Key West Writers and Their Houses. It didn’t ring quite true, somehow, and yet the story’s skeleton alone begged frequent repetition. Hemingway, man of action and hard drinking, fan of violence in so many forms, and Stevens, cerebral, executive, ironic: each gave as much to American writing in the 1930s as any. That they both spent considerable time that decade in tiny Key West was improbable enough. That they actually came to blows over their no-doubt-innumerable differences was gravy, perhaps a fiction but, with apologies to Wallace, a supremely pleasurable one.
It turns out the story is true. Let’s let Hem tell it: