February 27, 2012

"A Prairie Girl"

By Thomas McGuane
~3900 words

In a small Montana town, an ex-prostitute moves up the social ladder when she marries the son of a prominent banker.

The narrator refers to the story's setting as "our lively old cow town," but his presence is never part of the plot, making this a third-person narration. The perspective jumps around considerably but gravitates toward the main character, Mary Elizabeth Foley.

The story begins with the closure of the brothel in which Mary works. It follows her hard-edged ambition as she butts heads with the town's more respectable citizens, gradually clawing her way into the family of Paul Tanner. A highlight is Mary's complex relationship with Tanner's son Arnold. Despite having a male lover in California, Arnold feels considerable affection for Mary and shares several tender moments with her, leading to the birth of their son Peter.

Several problematic elements undermine what might otherwise be strong story. First among them is the perspective:
Where was the meekness appropriate to a woman with her past? It was outrageous. From then on, the energy that ought to have been spent on listening to the service was dedicated to beaming malice at Mary Elizabeth Foley. Even the men joined in, though it was unlikely that they had entirely relinquished their lewd fantasies. Soon she had the pew to herself all over again, and greeted it each Sunday with happy surprise, like someone finding an empty parking spot right in front of the entrance to Walmart.
In one paragraph, we move from the indignation of Mary's future mother-in-law to the lewd fantasies of unnamed men to Mary's happy surprise. The unfocused perspective is typical of the narrative as a whole, which leads to poorly textured characters with whom it is difficult to identify. Additionally, it is unclear how a narrator who is a town resident (as suggested in the phrase "our lively old cow town") can possess the near-omniscience implied by this sweeping perspective.

Another problem is the radical acceleration of the chronology in the last third of the story. In the second-to-last section, Mary and Arnold's son is born; in the last (less than three columns later), he is marching off to college as his mother struggles to explain the absence of his father. As a result, events are dramatically telescoped and the emotions attached to them must be told rather than shown:
Mary bought a horse and, as Peter grew, Arnold spent more and more time in San Juan Capistrano; the day came when he told Mary that he would not be coming back. As foreseen as that must have been, they both wept discreetly to avoid alarming Peter, who was in the next room. They tried to discuss how Arnold would spend time with Peter, but the future looked so fractured that they were forced to trust to their love and intentions.
Finally, the language of the story is a bit flat and relies too heavily on clichés, especially toward the end:
Considering the hoops he had to jump through, Arnold did his very best to be Peter's father, virtually commuting from California. This was even more remarkable once he had sold his share of the bank to Mary, since this occasioned a rupture with his own mother. Peter was consoled by the fact that his parents were now sleeping together once a month, and Arnold called him Pedro at intimate moments. He never let on to his friend in California how much he enjoyed these interludes of snuggling with Mary.
The latter paragraph demonstrates all the problems that bedevil "A Prairie Girl." The perspective shifts from Arnold to Peter and back to Arnold; the chronology is disorienting; the narrator tells rather than shows; and the diction is uninspired.


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