September 10, 2012

"The Casserole"

By Thomas McGuane
~1600 words

A disdainful husband gets his comeuppance on his twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.

The story is told in the first person from the point of view of the husband, who remains nameless throughout. He and his wife Ellie are on their way to her parents' ranch to celebrate the anniversary, a journey that involves crossing the Missouri River by ferry. En route the husband seems to have nothing but sour comments to offer about the affair and everyone involved. He also notes several unusual things about his wife during the trip—she has packed an "exalted volume of luggage" in the car and is in a state of "peculiar cheer"—but declines to ask her about them because "I just didn't feel like it." It's only when they arrive at the ranch and are met by Ellie's parents—Dad with a gun and Mom with a casserole in a lunch pail, for the narrator to eat on his way back home—that he (along with the reader) realizes he's being ditched.

This story does a good job of creating an unsympathetic narrator not through any drastic or horrible actions on his part but simply through the general disdain and ill-will with which he encounters the world. Regarding his wife's reaction to his spendthrift nature, for example, he notes:
She once had the nerve to point out that all this saving up for old age was remarkable for someone who had so much contempt for the elderly. I said, "Ha-ha-ha." She was going to have to settle for wiggling her butt in the school corridors until the inevitable day when the damn thing sagged.
About his in-laws he opines:
Believe me, it was Methuselah and his bride at the Grand Ole Opry. 
Even after he's been dumped, his most pressing thought seems to be, "What kind of idiot puts a casserole in lunch pail?"

While it's satisfying to see the rug pulled from beneath this obnoxious character, it also feels like the story has been contrived to pull off precisely this outcome, as if it were all about the ending. The result is that, even with the short length, elements that don't serve the main purpose end up, in retrospect, feeling out of place. One wonders, for example, why so much attention is paid to crossing the river by ferry or to the narrator's "extensive collection of West Coast jazz records."

"The Casserole" is a decent story with an amusing though gimmicky-feeling ending.


Reader poll: I found "The Casserole" to be ___.

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