Panamaby Thomas McGuane
Paris, 1892. The American historian Henry Adams, grandson of one President and great-grandson of another, is looking for Miriam Talbott, a young American woman studying in Paris. Miriam is alive in ways Adams can scarcely remember being: bright, beguiling, talented, and attractive. She draws him out of the "posthumous" life he has led since the suicide of his wife,… See more details below
Paris, 1892. The American historian Henry Adams, grandson of one President and great-grandson of another, is looking for Miriam Talbott, a young American woman studying in Paris. Miriam is alive in ways Adams can scarcely remember being: bright, beguiling, talented, and attractive. She draws him out of the "posthumous" life he has led since the suicide of his wife, Clover, seven years before. But when he goes looking for Miriam, no one at her given address has seen her. And when another woman's body is fished out of the Seine and identified as hers, Adams knows she is in trouble and needs his assistance. Adams soon discovers that Miriam's disappearance is somehow involved with the great Panama Affair that threatens to engulf France. Before it went bankrupt, the French Panama Canal Company had bribed nearly half the members of the Chamber of Deputies to gain legislation favorable to its interests. Now one director of the company has been found dead; other directors flee; and for a week, the entire city awaits the revelation of the names of the chequards, the long list of deputies witless enough to have accepted their bribes in the form of checks.
Christian Science Monitor
"This is the first time I've worked without a net." The speaker is Chester Pomeroy, a washed-up rock star turned casualty of illicit substances and kamikaze passion. But we may also read these words as an aesthetic statement from Chester's creator, Thomas McGuane, who has made Panama a high-wire act of extravagant emotion and steel-nerved prose.
As he haunts Key West, pestering family, threatening a potential in-law with a .38, and attempting to crucify himself on his ex's door out of sheer lovesickness, Chester emerges as the pure archetype of the McGuane hero. Out of his struggle to rejoin the human race and the imminent possibility that he may die trying McGuane has fashioned a harrowing and hilarious novel of "alligators, macadam, the sea, sticky sex, laughter, and sudden death."
"Whatever risk McGuane may have sensed in attempting [Panama], the feat proves successful. The audience is left dazzled." The New Yorker
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By Thomas McGuane
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 1978 Thomas McGuane
All rights reserved.
This is the first time I've worked without a net. I want to tell the truth. At the same time, I don't want to start a feeding frenzy. You stick your neck out and you know what happens. It's obvious.
The newspaper said that the arrests were made by thirty agents in coordinated raids "early in the a.m." and that when the suspects were booked, a crowd of three hundred gathered at the Monroe County Courthouse and applauded. The rest of the page had to do with the charges against the men, which were neither here nor there. Most people I heard talking thought it was just too Cuban for words.
I stepped out onto the patio as the city commissioner was taken to the unmarked car in handcuffs. He was in his bathrobe and lottery tickets were blowing all over the place. Last week they picked up my dog and it cost me a five. The phone number was on her collar and they could have called. I knew how badly they had wanted to use the gas. But then, they're tired of everything. The wind blows all winter and gets on your nerves. It just does. They have nothing but their uniforms and the hopes of using the gas.
Out on the patio, I could see the horizon. The dog slept in the wedge of sun. There were no boats, the sea was flat, and from here, there was not a bit of evidence of the coordinated raids, the unmarked cars. The lottery—the bolita—was silent; it was always silent. And behind the wooden shutters, there was as much cocaine as ever. I had a pile of scandal magazines to see what had hit friends and loved ones. There was not one boat between me and an unemphatic horizon. I was home from the field of agony or whatever you want to call it; I was home from it. I was dead.
* * *
I went up to the Casa Marina to see my stepmother. The cats were on the screen above the enclosed pool and the grapefruits were rotting in the little grove. Ruiz the gardener was crawfishing on the Cay Sal bank and the bent grass was thick and spongy and neglected. I was there five minutes when she said, "You were an overnight sensation." And I said, "Gotta hit it, I left the motor running." And she said, "You left the motor running?" and I said, "That's it for me, I'm going." And she tottered after me with the palmetto bugs scattering in the foyer and screamed at me as I pulled out: "You left the motor running! You don't have a car!" I actually don't know how smart she is. What could she have meant by that? I believe that she was attacking my memory.
She is a special case, Roxy; she is related to me three different ways and in some sense collects all that is dreary, sinister, or in any way glorious about my family. Roxy is one of those who have technically died; was in fact pronounced dead, then accidentally discovered still living by an alert nurse. She makes the most of this terrible event. She sometimes has need of tranquilizers half the size of Easter eggs. She drinks brandy and soda with them; and her face hollows out everywhere, her eyes sink, and you think of her earlier death. Sometimes she raises her hand to her face thinking the drink is in it. Roxy can behave with great charm. But then, just at the wrong time, pulls up her dress or throws something. I time my visits with extreme caution. I watch the house or see if her car has been properly parked. I used to spy but then I saw things which I perhaps never should have; and so I stopped that. When she thinks of me as an overnight sensation, she can be quite ruthless, flinging food at me or, without justification, calling the police and making false reports. I tolerate that because, under certain circumstances, I myself will stop at nothing. Fundamentally though, my stepmother is a problem because she is disgusting.
I guess it came to me, or maybe I just knew, that I have not been remembering things as clearly as I could have. For instance, Roxy is right, I don't have a car. I have a memory problem. The first question—look, you can ask me this—is exactly how much evasive editing is part of my loss of memory. I've been up against that one before. My position with respect to anyone else's claims for actuality has always been: it's you against me and may the best man win.
I'm not as stupid as I look. Are you? For instance, I'm no golfer. I did have a burst, and this is the ghastly thing which awaits each of us, of creating the world in my own image. I removed all resistance until I floated in my own invention. I creamed the opposition. Who in the history of ideas has prepared us for creaming the opposition? This has to be understood because otherwise ... well, there is no otherwise; it really doesn't matter.
* * *
The first time I ran into Catherine, coming from the new wing of the county library, I watched from across the street noting that her Rhonda Fleming, shall we say, grandeur had not diminished. It seemed a little early in the present voyage to reveal myself. I sat on the wall under the beauty parlor, just a tenant in my self, or a bystander, eyes flooded, pushing my fingers into my sleeves like a nun. I thought, When I find the right crooked doctor, I'm going to laugh in your face.
I followed her for two blocks and watched her turn up the blind lane off Caroline where the sapodilla tree towers up from the interior of the block as though a piece of the original forest were imprisoned there. This spring they dug up the parking lot behind some clip joint on lower Duval and found an Indian grave, the huge skull of a Calusa seagoing Indian staring up through four inches of blacktop at the whores, junkies, and Southern lawyers.
So I sent her flowers without a note and two days later a note without flowers; and got this in return, addressed "Chester Hunnicutt Pomeroy, General Delivery": "Yes Chet I know you're home. But don't call me now, you flop you. —Catherine." I went into the garden and opened the toolshed, bug life running out among the rake tines. I got the big English stainless-steel pruning shears and came, you take it from me, that close to sending Catherine the finger I'd lost in her darkness so many thousands of times. The palmetto bugs are translucent as spar varnish and run over your feet in the shed. The sea has hollowed the patio into resonant chambers and when the wind has piped up like today you hear its moiling, even standing in the shed with the rakes and rust and bugs.
I felt better and lost all interest in mutilating myself, even for Catherine. Tobacco doves settled in the crown-of-thorns and some remote airplane changed harmonics overhead with a soft pop like champagne, leaving a pure white seam on the sky. I was feeling better and better and better. On stationery from my uncle's shipyard, I wrote, "There is no call for that. I'm just here with respect of healing certain injuries. Catherine, you only hurt hurt hurt when you lash out like that. I don't believe you try to picture what harm you do. —Chet." I traced my finger on the back of the sheet with a dotted line where the shears would have gone through. I said nothing as to the dotted line. It seemed to me with some embarrassment that it might have looked like a request for a ring.
I dialed Information and asked for Catherine Clay. The operator said it was unpublished. I told her it was a matter of life or death; and the operator said, I know who you are, and clicked off. They wouldn't treat Jesse James like that.
* * *
When they build a shopping center over an old salt marsh, the seabirds sometimes circle the same place for a year or more, coming back to check daily, to see if there isn't some little chance those department stores and pharmacies and cinemas won't go as quickly as they'd come. Similarly, I come back and keep looking into myself, and it's always steel, concrete, fan magazines, machinery, bubble gum; nothing as sweet as the original marsh. Catherine knows this without looking, knows that the loving child who seems lost behind the reflector Ray-Bans, perhaps or probably really is lost. And the teeth that were broken in schoolyards or spoiled with Cuban ice cream have been resurrected and I am in all respects the replica of an effective bright-mouthed coastal omnivore, as happy with spinach salads as human flesh; and who snoozing in the sun of his patio, inert as any rummy, Rolex Oyster Chronometer imbedding slightly in softened flesh, teeth glittering with ocean light like minerals, could be dead; could be the kind of corpse that is sometimes described as "fresh."
"I am a congestion of storage batteries. I'm wired in series. I've left some fundamental components on the beach, and await recharging, bombardment, implanting, something, shall we say, very close to the bone. I do want to go on; but having given up, I can't be expected to be very sympathetic."
"That's all very pretty," Catherine Clay said. "But I don't care. Now may I go?"
"I don't care. And above all, I don't want you stalking me like this in the supermarket. I can't have you lurking in the aisles."
"It's still the same."
"It's not, you liar, you flop!"
Slapping me, crying, yelling, oh God, clerks peering. I said, "You're prettiest like this." She chunks a good one into my jaw. The groceries were on the floor. Someone was saying, "Ma'am? Ma'am?" My tortoiseshell glasses from Optique Boutique were askew and some blood was in evidence. My lust for escape was complete. Palm fronds beat against the air-conditioned thermopane windows like my own hands.
Two clerks were helping Catherine to the door. I think they knew. Mrs. Fernandez, the store manager, stood by me.
"Can I use the crapper?" I asked.
She stared at me coolly and said, "First aisle past poultry."
I stood on the toilet and looked out at my nation through the ventilator fan. Any minute now, and Catherine Clay, the beautiful South Carolina wild child, would appear shortcutting her way home with her groceries.
I heard her before I could see her. She wasn't breathing right. That scene in the aisles had been too much for her and her esophagus was constricted. She came into my view and in a very deep and penetrating voice I told her that I still loved her, terrifying myself that it might not be a sham, that quite apart from my ability to abandon myself to any given moment, I might in fact still be in love with this crafty, amazing woman who looked up in astonishment. I let her catch no more than a glimpse of me in the ventilator hole before pulling the bead chain so that I vanished behind the dusty accelerating blades, a very effective slow dissolve.
I put my sunglasses back on and stood in front of the sink, staring at my blank reflection, scrutinizing it futilely for any expression at all and committing self-abuse. The sunglasses looked silvery and pure in the mirror, showing twins of me, and I watched them until everything was silvery and I turned off the fan, tidied up with a paper towel, and went back out through poultry toward the electric doors. Mrs. Fernandez, the store manager, smiled weakly and I said, "Bigger even than I had feared." The heat hit me in the street and I started ... I think I started home. It was to feed the dog but I was thinking of Catherine and I had heartaches by the million.
* * *
My father was a store detective who was killed in the Boston subway fire, having gone to that city in connection with the Bicentennial. He had just left Boston Common, where we have kin buried. Everything I say about my father is disputed by everyone. My family have been shipwrights and ship's chandlers, except for him and me. I have been as you know in the Svengali business; I saw a few things and raved for money. I had a very successful show called The Dog Ate The Part We Didn't Like. I have from time to time scared myself. Even at the height of my powers, I was not in good health. But a furious metabolism preserves my physique and I am considered a tribute to evil living.
Those who have cared for me, friends, uncles, lovers, think I'm a lost soul or a lost cause. When I'm tired and harmless, I pack a gun, a five-shot Smith and Wesson .38. It's the only .38 not in a six-shot configuration I know of. How the sacrifice of that one last shot makes the gun so flat and concealable, so deadlier than the others. Just by giving up a little!
As to my mother, she was a flash act of the early fifties, a bankrolled B-girl who caught cancer like a bug that was going around; and died at fifty-six pounds. There you have it. The long and the short of it. And I had a brother Jim.
The money began in a modest way in the 1840's. A grandfather of minor social bearing, who had fought a successful duel, married a beautiful girl from the Canary Islands with two brothers who were ship's carpenters. They built coasters, trading smacks, sharpie mailboats, and a pioneer lightship for the St. Lucie inlet. The Civil War came and they built two blockade runners for the rebellion, the Red Dog and the Rattlesnake; went broke, jumped the line to Key West again while Stephen Mallory left town to become Secretary of the Confederate Navy. At what is now the foot of Ann Street, they built a series of deadly blockade boats, light, fast, and armed. They were rich by then, had houses with pecan wood dining-room tables, crazy chandeliers, and dogwood joists pinned like the ribs of ships. Soon they were all dead; but the next gang were solid and functional and some of them I remember. Before our shipyard went broke in the Depression, they had built every kind of seagoing conveyance that could run to Cuba and home; the prettiest, a turtle schooner, the Hillary B. Cates, was seen last winter off Cap Haitien with a black crew, no masts, and a tractor engine for power, afloat for a century. She had been a yacht and a blockade runner, and her first master, a child Confederate officer from the Virginia Military Institute, was stabbed to death by her engineer, Noah Card, who defected to the North and raised oranges at Zephyrhills, Florida, until 1931. He owed my grandfather money; but I forget why.
My grandfather was a dull, stupid drunk; and the white oak and cedar and longleaf pine rotted and the floor fell out of the mold loft while he filed patents on automobiles and comic cigarette utensils. I recall only his rheumy stupor and his routine adoration of children.
Let me try Catherine again.
"One more and I go to the police for a restraining order."
No sense pursuing that for the moment.
* * *
My stepmother had a suitor. He was an attorney-at-law and affected argyle socks and low blue automobiles. He screamed when he laughed. What I think he knew was that the shipyard was a world of waterfront property and that when the Holiday Inn moved in where the blockade boats and coasters had been built, Roxy got all the money. His name was Curtis Peavey and he was on her case like a man possessed, running at the house morning noon and night with clouds of cheap flowers. Roxy had been known to fuck anything; and I couldn't say she ever so much as formed an opinion of Peavey. I noticed though that she didn't throw the flowers away, she pushed them into the trash, blossoms forward, as if they'd been involved in an accident. In this, I pretended to see disgust. I myself didn't like Peavey. His eyes were full of clocks, machinery, and numbers. The curly head of hair tightened around his scalp when he talked to me and his lips stuck on his teeth. But he had a devoted practice. He represented Catherine. No sense concealing that. If Peavey could, he'd throw the book at me. He said I was depraved and licentious; he said that to Roxy. Whenever I saw him, he was always about to motivate in one of the low blue cars. Certain people thought of him as a higher type; he donated Sandburg's life of Lincoln to the county library with his cornball bookplate in every volume, a horrific woodcut of a sturdy New England tree; with those dismal words: Curtis G. Peavey. As disgusting as Roxy was, I didn't like to see her gypped; which is what Peavey clearly meant to do. I didn't care about the money at all. I have put that shipyard up my nose ten times over.
Excerpted from Panama by Thomas McGuane. Copyright © 1978 Thomas McGuane. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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