September 10, 2012: “The Casserole” by Thomas McGuane
Mercifully short, the story is about a couple traveling to the wife’s parents’ ranch to celebrate the couple’s 25th anniversary. Along the way we learn that they never wanted children, that he’s a miser—they’ve saved and saved and so have a nest egg, and yet the drive a junker of a car, that they don’t seem to agree on much. In fact, it seems that the husband believes that his opinions are their opinions, but by the time we get to the ranch we know that he’s pretty much wrong about that. And then there is a surprise ending—Deborah Treisman in the Q&A with Thoms McGuane calls it an O. Henry ending, but McGuane doesn’t seem to know what that means—which I won’t reveal, but it has something to do with the story’s title.
Apart from the sociological commentary about the inheritance problems facing Montana ranchers, and the cute ending, which is a bit predictable, there’s not much meat on this story. As I say, it’s mercifully short.
One of my creative-writing teachers used to give lessons based on stories he didn’t like (but famous published stories, nevertheless) and discuss their flaws. This story serves that purpose well. For example, the “inheritance battles” are told, rather than shown. How effective is this?
How effective is the device of telling the reader exactly what the reader should be thinking “What kind of idiot puts a casserole in a lunch pail?”
Is the symbolism original or cliched? — “miles to go before the next bend.”
I enjoyed the story from this what-not-to-do-when-I-resume-writing standpoint.
No story is entirely useless — it can always serve as a bad example.
This wonderful story isn’t about Montana ranching. It is about the heartbreak of a failed marriage. Ellie didn’t bring all that luggage just for a short trip – she was moving back in with her parents.
By the time they arrive at the ranch the reader knows exactly why the marriage has failed, although the husband is still clueless.
“What kind of idiot puts a casserole in a lunch pail?” The kind who never wants to see that jerk again, so she supplies a disposable container.
Nice touch with the sidearm, Mr. McGuane.