The author discusses “Not Here You Don’t,” his story from the latest issue of the magazine.

By Deborah Treisman

October 11, 2021

In your story “Not Here You Don’t,” a man, Cary, takes his father’s ashes back to the ruins of the family’s old homestead in Montana and reflects on his family’s past: the original rancher was his great-grandfather; his grandfather lost the ranch and became an embittered small-town projectionist and salesman; his father got out by enlisting as a pilot in the Vietnam War. You live in Montana most of the time. Were you drawing on details from local history?

Thomas McGuane.
Photograph by Alberto Cristofari / Contrasto / Redux

Yes. The scenario is quite commonplace, I think. There’s always someone around with war experience. I used to have brothers-in-law who’d served in Vietnam. In the valley where I live, I recall there being veterans from at least three wars, maybe four, in a very small population, at the same time. This seems odd for a country that is almost always at war but hasn’t won one in seventy years.

The title of the story, which doesn’t actually appear in the story, is an idiom that indicates not belonging or not being allowed entrance. How does it tie into this story?

It’s a cipher for our dystopia, our detachment. The Carole King line often rings in my head: “Doesn’t anyone stay in one place anymore?” It’s nobody’s fault; it’s impossible.

Cary encounters a local landowner who doesn’t want to allow him access to the land where his family used to live and then has his car towed. Why is it so important to the man to keep Cary out?

This is one type of landowner in a changing pattern. It is unlikely that he pays local taxes, votes, or raises children in Montana. Some of the state’s largest landowners are Texans. I’ve had a long romance with Montana, but it’s one I find harder to grasp every year. It used to be a state with a moderate government, where it was possible to wander around in a socially temperate atmosphere. Mike Mansfield exemplified those times. The place is now ruled by a far-right, intolerant state government, absentee owners, and anti-wildlife resource management. There’s an obsession with trespassing, though it’s not quite up to the standards of Texas, whose ideas about private property would look like mental illness anywhere else. Each Montanan may now kill ten wolves a year. Little attention is paid by state agencies to a steeply declining fish population. The reintroduction of buffalo is fought with irrational fears and hypocrisy. Summers are smoke filled. Guess why.

Cary doesn’t express a lot of emotion while carrying out his errand, but he is exhausted and paralyzed afterward, has trouble restarting his normal life. What causes that reaction?

I think he is stoic and habitually defers painful matters until he finds a better time to respond. His father is dead, his love life is uncertain, and he can’t quite figure out how he ended up working in a corporation, three jumps from an old agrarian world. He’s not nostalgic; he’s bewildered.

You trace the trajectory of several generations of this family: from the cowboy rancher, to the disaffected son, to the military pilot who becomes an oil geologist, to Cary, who works a corporate job, sees a therapist, and has a favorite breakfast spot. An all-American story?

It’s getting to be! Unfamiliar forces dislodge us, and we resort to defensive perimeters. Here in Montana, it might be four friends, two bars, the Carnegie library, and a place to fish. It’s the self-imposed isolation of people who no longer feel they understand their fellow-citizens.

Cary’s grandmother gave birth to his father and then “vamoosed,” never to be heard from again; Cary’s mother, a former Miss Arkansas, is prone to alcoholic despair; Cary has divorced his wife, and uses a bottle of vodka to get the hostess of his small-town B. and B. into bed. Why are the connections between women and the men of Cary’s family so fraught?

I grew up not far from a military base, where a world of rock-star fighter pilots, hot wives, and booze challenged the stability of many marriages. The vodka/hostess/bed episode is so gruesome it’s hard to think that either party got anything out of it that they wanted. More likely, they got something they’ll make sure they never get again. It’s what Ezra Pound called the eternal failure to achieve a lasting nirvana through “the twitching of three abdominal nerves.” A common discovery of the hookup generation is that loveless sex isn’t even fun. It’s desperate and looks funny.

There are the seeds here for an epic novel. Why compact it into just over three thousand words?

I hope that those words can do what a novel might have done. Maybe readers interested in my stories will remember them as they would remember a novel, with their own concordance of characters and unifying themes. The short story is a cruel little metier and a poor choice for anyone hoping to conceal his or her faults as a writer. Reading stories can make reading novels harder, when you encounter the wind blowing through their longueurs like a cold day in the Great Basin. Randall Jarrell’s reported definition of the novel as a “prose narrative of some length with something wrong with it” points to a capacity of the novel but not of the short story. In this, the short story is more like a play: a play with five dead minutes is a dead play.

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