THOMAS McGUANE’S JAZZ COLLECTOR

Thomas McGuane’s short story, THE CASSEROLE, published in the September 10, 2012 issue of THE NEW YORKER, is short, sharp, and hard.  It begins on page 93, with the nameless narrator and his wife — and by the end of 94, the story is over, the narrator is by himself, not knowing what has hit him.

I was so struck by the story — and I mean that phrase in the literal sense — that I may bring it with me tomorrow morning when my semester begins and read it to my students.  But what also struck me is this short passage early on in the story, which I reprint here:

I had an extensive collection of West Coast jazz records, including the usual suspects, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Stan Getz, and so on — not everybody has  Wardell Gray and Buddy Collette, but I did — and if I’d had a bit more dough I could have added a room on to our house specifically to house this collection, with an appropriate sound system.  But when I complained about things like this to Ellie, she just said, “Cue the violins.”

Now, if you read this without any context, it may well seem that our sympathy is with the narrator.  Poor fellow, his unsympathetic bitch of a wife doesn’t understand his love for jazz.  But the hubris of his boasting to himself that he knows what the real stuff is — I own Wardell Gray records! — comes to bite him a page later, for he is one of those characters (modeled on real people) who don’t see the train coming until it had flattened them.

I don’t present this as an example of how jazz collectors are represented in fiction, nor do I see it as an overarching commentary on marital relations when the soundtrack is jazz music.  (By the way, the narrator still has his records at the end of the story: this is not a fictionalized reading of BLACKBOARD JUNGLE.)

Incidentally, trusting the author is slippery business, but McGuane said this in a brief interview (on the magazine’s website), after calling the narrator a “twit,” “I think he has nearly everything wrong. He is a peevish fault-finder who gets what he deserves.”

This passage simply caught my attention not once but twice, and I suppose it is worthy of note when Wardell Gray shows up in THE NEW YORKER now that Whitney Balliett is dead . . .

I am sorry I cannot reprint the story for everyone to read, but you surely can find this issue in your local library or find someone who subscribes to the magazine.

May your happiness increase.

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3 responses to “THOMAS McGUANE’S JAZZ COLLECTOR

  1. Hi Michael – it’s so much fun to discover a new perspective on a story. I think I skimmed over the passage you cite when I read this (and I read TNY stories several times to post on them) so I’m glad you pointed it out. I confess, I know nothing about jazz, which is probably why the passage didn’t really sink in.

    You said, ” But the hubris of his boasting to himself that he knows what the real stuff is — I own Wardell Gray records! — comes to bite him a page later, for he is one of those characters (modeled on real people) who don’t see the train coming until it had flattened them.” Is this in reference to a specific Wardell Gray song, about a character who didn’t see the train coming? If so, that’s a really exciting discovery.

    Are you familiar with Kenneth Calhoun’s “Nightblooming” ? It’s available online and you might find it interesting as well. I read it a couple of years ago via the PEN/O.Henry 2011 collection, though Zin did the blog commentary – it uses music heavily both as plot and in symbolism, and it read something like jazz – improvised, unexpected, rhythmic; in the abstract, something like your evaluation of “The Casserole” as fast-and-agonizingly-slow. You might enjoy it, if you haven’t read it already.

  2. Dear Karen,

    Honored to have this conversation. Permit me to unravel some of the jazz esoterica. Our narrator prides himself on his collection, and he says he has recordings by Mulligan, Baker, and other famous figures. BUT, he tells us (and in part himself and certainly he has told Ellie) that he collects recordings by Wardell Gray and Buddy Colette that others do not. This is rather like his saying that he is among the cognoscenti — the people who go beneath the surface, who prize artists not well known to the general public. Both Gray and Colette were famous saxophonists (Colette played other instruments as well); Gray was short-lived. I suspect that my figure of speech followed in that sentence so quickly that you thought there was an actual musical reference. But what I meant was that the narrator does not see what is going to happen to him; he has no idea how Ellie and her parents feel about him (certainly the six-gun at the end is an indication, and the casserole in a dinner pail, about which he is so snobbish, is more evidence of their disdain and hostility) . . . all he can see is that Ellie is cool to his idea of another room being built on the house to take care of his records. In addition, of course, he encloses himself in the car while Ellie is being so delightedly enthusiastic about everything . . . he cannot read the signs and he has had no idea of what edifice of feeling and actions Ellie and her parents have been building.

    Does that make my quickly-written sentence clearer?

    It’s always a pleasure to discuss art with someone who feels it deeply. With every good wish, Michael

  3. I see – it’s more an inference that he’s bragging about being “in the know” when, as we’ll see, he’s the last to know. Excellent also. And still a little “message” hidden for those who understand the references.

    I recognized, and, yes, enjoyed this character, in a love-to-hate sort of way. Of course, that he got his comeuppance was extremely satisfying.

    Thanks for the clarification.

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