“The Good Samaritan” by Thomas McGuane is a story that revolves around a man’s connection to the land, his family, and his work. The story is third-person limited from the point of view of Szabo, an industrious man who starts out as a machinist and then continues on to operate his own successful manufacturing business. As his life takes on more of a white-collar existence, Szabo looks to farming for a release.
Szabo was not nuts. He had long understood that he needed to do something with his hands to compensate for the work he did indoors, and it was not going to golf or woodworking. He wanted to grow something and sell it, and he wanted to use the property to do this. In fact, the word that he now did indoors had begun as manual labor. He had machined precision parts for wind generators for a company that subcontracted all the components, a company that sold an idea and actually made nothing. Szabo had long known that this approach was the wave of the future, without understanding that it was the wave of his future. He had worked very hard and his hard work had led him into the cerebral ether of his new workplace: now, at forty-five, he took orders in an office in the pleasant town in Montana, while his esteemed products were all manufactured in other countries. It was still a small, if prosperous, business, and it would likely stay small, because of Szabo’s enthusiasm for what he declined to call his ranch.
We begin to see Szabo’s identity, but also we are introduced to how Szabo deceives himself. He refuses to call his property a ranch. He would rather be seen as a farmer/rancher and not as a white-collar business owner. This idea of deception takes on a greater role once Szabo has injured himself and must hire a ranch hand to work on the property for him.
Soon after, Barney, a know-it-all ranch hand, is hired. McGuane does a great job of balancing the tension between Barney and Szabo. Barney shows off. Barney has an air of superiority. Barney is annoying. Barney does not respect boundaries. However, Barney does complete work on time. Szabo is stuck between his dislike for Barney and his practical knowledge that Barney is a good worker.
Not only is Szabo deceiving himself, he’s also being deceived by Barney. The point when this happens is not surprising. McGuane does a sloppy job when he describes Szabo’s mother and her home.
Szabo’s mother lived in a ground-floor apartment across the street from a pleasant assisted-living facility. She had stayed in her own apartment because she smoked cigarettes, which was also what seemed to have preserved her vitality over her many years. Further, she didn’t want to risk the family silver in an institution, or her real treasure: a painting that had come down through her family for nearly a century, a night stampede by the cowboy artist, Charlie Russell, one of very few Russell night pictures in existence, which would likely fetch a couple of million dollars at auction. The old people across the street would just take it down and spill food on it, she said.
For the same reason there’s a gun in act one, the painting almost flashes with neon begging Barney to steal it. Could McGuane have written this more subtlety? Does he lose anything by being obvious? He does lose the reader’s suspended disbelief. This paragraph feels so false, and is such a set-up that all we can do is wait for the inevitable. If the paragraph weren’t enough, the following ones describe how Barney befriends Szabo’s mother.
One enjoyable twist is that before Barney steals the painting, he makes sure that Szabo’s mother has it insured. It’s a human twist that makes the character less of a cliche con man.
“The Good Samaritan” is at its best when it’s focused on Szabo. He’s a character that I can relate to, and I imagine many men can as well. He’s successful in business, but disappointed in life. His identity is not the one he wishes. The addition of Barney, at first, highlights Szabo’s disappointment, but then narrative also falls under Barney’s spell. Barney takes over and the story becomes less about Szabo and more about Barney’s trickery. The end of the story also examines identity, Barney’s, whose real name is Ronny and seems to compensate for feelings of inferiority by telling all of his marks he has a Ph.D. when he doesn’t. However, at this point, it doesn’t matter. The story has descended into something like a police procedural with detectives and a summary.