Things Can Get Sweaty: Thomas McGuane and Arlo Haskell on Writing Key West

Arlo Haskell and Thomas McGuane. Photo by Michael Blades.

In a recent conversation with Thomas McGuane about his Key West novels—the National Book Award-nominated Ninety-Two in the Shade (1973) and Panama (1978)—Key West Literary Seminar executive director Arlo Haskell placed the “magical pair” alongside Ernest Hemingway’s Prohibition-era To Have and Have Not among the great literary time capsules of this place.

On stage at the San Carlos Institute, McGuane read aloud from Ninety-Two in the Shade at Haskell’s prompting: “When the sun first assembles itself over the broken skyline of Key West on a morning of great humidity, a thunderous light fills the city and everyone moves in stately flotation through streets that are conduits of something empyrean. Also, things can get sweaty.”

The passage, as Haskell pointed out, is classic McGuane, with its lyrical and visceral understanding of this subtropical island and its surrounding waters, where the author arrived in 1969 and stayed and fished for a decade. Haskell, born in the Keys in 1977 and raised at the tail end of the region’s “outlaw” era of interconnected drug runners, smugglers, fishermen, carpenters, and artists, discovered in McGuane’s light and moisture-filled novels the “character of place with a literary, even poetic, sensibility.” No one since has quite captured the feeding patterns of fish frequenting the flats around the island, or, as Wallace Stevens described it, the island chain’s “mountainous atmospheres of sky and sea.”

In their conversation, McGuane described his infatuation with the diversity of late 1960s Key West. “It was paradise for someone looking for things interesting enough to write about,” he said of its then low-key marijuana trade, sailboats, acoustic guitars, and hippies in cut-offs and bare feet. “Those of us who were here then felt something intangible that happened during those years. We’ll never quite get over our years in Key West. I’m sure that energy is what made me excited to write novels set here.”

Over the next decade, McGuane explained, Key West went from being a pot town to a coke town characterized by “guys with glocks in Italian suits.” By end of the 1970s, “it was a sinister place,” and that difference is reflected in Ninety-Two in the Shade and Panama. “Ninety-Two is a very hopeful book informed by love of people and place. Panama is grim, founded in despair. I see this only in retrospect, but that’s the arc I felt in that era.”

Of his nearly two dozen published books, McGuane feels especially close to his Key West novels. “When I wrote Panama, it was as if I was having a seizure or something,” he said of the sustained effort to express this thing coursing through his mind and spirit. “It wasn’t a pleasant experience, necessarily, but it was that kind of outpouring that doesn’t happen enough. I worked on Ninety-Two in the Shade so closely that I could recite it. Sometimes I wish I could reconnect with those intense experiences and tap into that compulsion. It’s a rare thing.”

Although McGuane now lives on a Montana ranch at the end of a long dirt road, in a natural and social world far from the Key West of those novels, his life remains centered around reading, writing, and outdoor exploration.

“If you read continuously, and I hope you do,” he told an aspiring writer who asked for advice during the audience Q&A, “at some point in your evolution as reader you’ll find something missing in books and stories you read, and you might feel like you’re the person who can fill that void.”

Reading and writing, cut-offs and bare feet, sky and sea, Haskell and McGuane: Magical pairings, they go on.

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