Ice by Thomas McGuane, 2005
The magic trick:
Peppering the narration with little tonal shifts that open up different possible meanings
Published in The New Yorker only eight months earlier than yesterday’s SSMT feature, “Cowboy,” “Ice” is a very different story. Set in Michigan instead of Montana, it features a teenaged protagonist trying to assert his own identity. There is much to admire here, but I’ll focus on the subtle shifts the narrator makes throughout the story regarding his feelings toward the drum major.
This is, after all, in many ways a basic story of adolescent hero worship. Only thing is, there is nothing basic or simple about adolescent hero worship. It’s probably not sexual at all. It’s probably not even personal. It’s usually more about access – having access to the lifestyle the hero seems to have at his fingertips. And, most tellingly, it also derives from ego.
The lights-out moment in this story for me comes when the narrator, taking to the ice in some misguided show of bravery, turns his fantasies against the previously beloved drum major: “It was impossible for me to imagine the drum major out here in his shako like an animated Q-tip—there would be no prancing among the crows and ice-killed fish for him, I gloated.” The shift is so abrupt it would seem uncharacteristic – a piece of poor writing out of line with the rest of the story. But that’s the whole point. You can see that the jealousy and competition has been looming there in the subtext the whole time. He hates the drum major as much as he looks up to him. Or perhaps he looks up to him because he hates him. He talks meekly and self-loathingly about his own cowardice, but in fact he is a very egotistical boy. His quiet belief that he should be the one getting Mrs. Andrews’s attention, the one getting the hero worship, the one basking in teenage cool, is the story’s driving force. It’s a very powerful but very quiet driving force.
At least that’s how I read it. I could be wrong. But I’d like to think all that stuff is there in the story. Either way, even if I’m way off, I’m not imagining those little tonal shift jabs that spring up throughout the story. They’re really cool and open up new sides of the narrator’s character every time. And that’s quite a trick on McGuane’s part.
By this time, I had recognized that fear was the defining feature of my life. My mistake lay in believing that I was unique in this. Still, I had gone back to delivering my papers on time; I had envisioned this as a test of my mettle, but the drum major seemed to have forgotten all about me. He said nothing. I dreamed of becoming a warrior or a big-game hunter. If I was going to prove myself, I would need a real trial.