Review: The House on Sand Creek – Thomas McGuane

Published in October 3rd, 2011 issue of The New Yorker, Thomas McGuane‘s “The House on Sand Creek” is a well-written story that can’t wait to get to the punchline.  The story centers around the narrator, a middle-aged, male lawyer full of clichés, and his wife, Monika, an architecture student stranded during the dissolution of Yugoslavia.  The two rent a house, sight unseen, in the country.  When they arrive to the property they find:

“It was an absolute horror. Skinned coyote carcasses were piled on the front step, and a dead horse hung from its halter where it had been tied to the porch. Inside was a shambles, and there was one detail we couldn’t understand without the help of the neighbors: shotgun blasts through the bathroom door. Apparently, Mrs. Old-Time Buckaroo used to chase Mr. Old-Time Buckaroo around the house until he ran into the bathroom, locked the door, and hid on the batch. The sides of the tub were pocked with lead.”

Soon after the move, Monika leaves the narrator and goes home to Bosnia-Herzegovina.  Monika meets another man, has a child with him, and seems to move on.  The narrator continues to live in the house as a bachelor and becomes friends with an off-balance neighbor, Bob.  Monika’s fresh start ends up failing and she moves back to be the narrator, her little boy in tow.

The tone of the story is humorous and there’s a sadness about the narrator which is laughable, because he’s self-aware enough to see how his life must look to outsiders.  He’s aware that he trends toward using clichés instead of direct language.  With Monika back he describes the situation saying, “The feeling came back to me, from the days of our marriage, that I was doomed in life to take a lot of shit and make weak jokes in response.”  That line sums up the narrator well.  Still, the reader reads, not because the story is altogether interesting, but to see what joke the narrator is making.

The joke involves Bob and Monika’s son, Karel, whom Bob has babysat as a kind of surrogate parent.  Mixed in are the narrator and Monika’s deluded belief that there is something salvageable in their relationship or that they are somehow more together than Bob.

Stories like these don’t keep me coming back for more.  I wasn’t caught up in the language, but it didn’t get in the way either.  The result was that I started skimming.  Get to the punchline already, I thought.  Punchline stories, while funny, can leave little for the reader to take away and encourages the reader not to linger.  “The House on Sand Creek” is funny with hints of melancholy, yet it is a story that doesn’t resonate long after it’s been read.

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