“Thomas McGuane’s Hazy Nightmare” by David Byron Queen

Thomas McGuane’s Panama is a novel full of contradiction—both hallucinogenic and sober, sparse and indulgent, flawed and majestic, hilarious and tragic. The title is itself a contradiction. It’s a book set in the Florida Keys named after somewhere else, a place only mentioned once in passing: Panama (though the location may hold the key to the story). For a long stretch of his career, McGuane considered Panama to be his finest (and most personal) novel. Critics panned it. One particularly scathing review, in The New York Times no less, questioned whether McGuane was even aware of how poor and sloppy the writing could be. Ouch.

The story takes place largely in the mind of Chester “Chet” Pomeroy—a coke-damaged, washed up celebrity off to reinvent himself in the Florida Keys, to “work without a net” as he says, and discover some semblance of truth in his life. His plans, unsurprisingly, do not pan out; once in Florida, he continues his debauched streak, and spends his days pining after a former lover, Catherine, who conveniently also happens to live in Key West. As Chet moves like a wrecking ball from scene to scene, I was reminded of the oft-repeated quip from Mel Brooks: “Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” In Panama, all of Key West is Chet’s open sewer.

Because even as Chet finds himself in one of the furthest reaches of the country, he can’t outrun himself. “The occupational hazard of making spectacle of yourself, over the long haul, is that at some point you buy a ticket too,” Chet reveals early in the novel, in one of his rare, lucid, moments of self-awareness. Mostly though, we get an over-the-top McGuane-ian anti-hero: deluded, self-absorbed, and thoroughly unprepared for the ways adult life often requires rigorous self-scrutinization, and at least a functional grasp on objective reality. In these ways, McGuane’s complex, frustrating, self-destructive Chet is incredibly successful at capturing and exploring a specific kind of burned out ’70s gonzo archetype. Not unlike McGuane himself at the time.

I can understand the lack of patience critics had with this book in 1978, as it does certainly benefit from a full picture of McGuane’s work and career as a writer, and his transformation from a Chet Pomeroy type—famously nicknamed “Captain Berserko” in the ’70s Key West party scene—into a mild-mannered family man living out his days on his ranch outside Livingston, Montana. Within the context of these biographic pieces, Chet’s—and McGuane’s—symbolic obsession with truth seems less like another delusion, and more urgent and emotionally resonant; these hints of clarity found their way to the surface in my read, and could prove just as shocking as some of Chet’s more ludicrous exploits: i.e. literally nailing himself to Catherine’s door.

As a fan of McGuane’s work, I came to Panama expecting the worst (his Wikipedia ominously contains an entire section devoted to “Life After Panama”) and was surprised to find little of the book the critics seemed to have reviewed. In most ways, the novel seems like another classic “early period” McGuane: ironic, brash, linguistically inventive. And in other ways, even more so. The book is angrier, riskier, and more emotionally vulnerable than any book he’d written to date, with a protagonist who seems hellbent on making sure you dislike him.

In a revealing 2015 interview with the Los Angeles Review of Books, McGuane once again addressed Panama—this time from a nearly forty year vantage point: “I want to be clear,” he said. “I don’t want to duck things anymore, especially emotional or painful things that are difficult to write in the first place.” Panama is far from a perfect novel; it can be tedious and difficult to follow, and Chet often seems to work overtime to alienate anything and everything outside of his immediate, narcissistic, orbit. But every so often, an epiphany will pass through, buried within the mayhem. “I wanted to get well. I just didn’t know what that was,” Chet says near the end. This searching dimension is the book’s most complicating aspect, because it seems to contradict every juvenile thing we see his character do and say. But remember, this is a novel full of contradiction. These “redeeming” elements of Chet’s character are often hard to see because they appear organically from within the same impulses that bring us the chaos. In a therapeutic setting, this might be what’s known as a “cry for help,” which isn’t far off. Mix that with the kind of burdensome revelations that can happen on a barstool at one in the morning.

Though not quite to the pyrotechnic levels of his early novels, and without the emotional clarity of his later stories, line by line, sentence by sentence, Panama is up there with McGuane’s finest. Wind “screams” inside palm leaves; sealight “spangles”; a Key West evening is described as “meringue.” The way he captures the otherworldly beauty of Florida reveals as much about the damaged, striving Chet as his ramblings toward honesty. For a novel concerned so much with mistaken memory, lost memory, and the fog of substance abuse, these moments of lucid, tactile beauty show us a particular attentiveness and sensitivity—a mind going through the world, trying to perceive and make sense of it, and, more often than not, failing to do so. The tragedy here is that you can’t perceive your way out of your mind. Although Chet certainly tries.

Panama derives its title as from the country of Panama, where Chet and Catherine may or may not have gotten married years earlier. Chet isn’t sure if it actually happened. And at a certain point, it doesn’t matter if it did. What matters more is what it represents to Chet. Somewhere in the jumble of madness, there exists a vision of beauty.

In the days after reading the novel, I found myself experiencing a similar mental fog. I’ll admit I had a difficult time remembering what happened in the book; and yet the images and feelings the book had conjured in my mind were all there, all swimming around loosely, as if siphoned directly from Chet’s subconscious. This feels uncannily, thematically relevant. If anything, it’s what the book is truly about. Few novels try as hard to reach the darkest, innermost places of the human psyche, and then fewer still succeed. “In the end,” Chet says, “your only shot is to tell everyone, to blow the whistle on the nightmare.” If only he could remember. ♦︎

David Byron Queen grew up in Ohio. His work has appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, VICE, Hobart, McSweeney’s, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. He has an MFA in Fiction from the University of Montana, where he was a Truman Capote Fellow. Currently he lives in New York and runs the indie publishing company ‘word west.’ Find him on Twitter @byron_queen