‘Riddle’ by Thomas McGuane

Riddle by Thomas McGuane, 2017

The magic trick:

Creating a swirl of narrative chaos, but keeping the narrator’s focus on a seemingly meaningless moment of observation

There’s death, sex, and car theft in this story. Some really crazy stuff. So it’s remarkable that it’s a simple observation that dominates the narrator’s memory. He sees an old man and a young man greet each other in the street late one night, and he can’t shake the effect it has on him. Even as all the aforementioned crazy stuff happens.

I feel like it’s the kind of story you really could only write in your old age. It takes years of reflection to properly understand how a moment like that grows in value. Granted, our narrator seems to understand its importance immediately. But that’s in the story. The author needed time, I suspect, and this is a beautiful distillation of that acquired wisdom.  And that’s quite a trick on McGuane’s part. 

The selection:

I had stopped to watch the old man, perhaps wondering how far he’d make it in his condition, when a young boy, an urchin, appeared from an alley and called out to him, “Jack! Hey, Jack!,” and the old man turned toward the voice. I don’t know if I can put my finger on it after all this time, but the excitement or joy, or whatever it was that these two experienced when they saw each other, has never left me. That’s all I can say about it.


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