The Tree Line, Kansas, 1934 is about FBI agent Lee’s memory of a stake out that he was assigned to with a younger agent named Barnes. Now in his retirement years, Lee returns to the memory of those five days, as if it were the defining moment not only of his career but of his life.
The story opens with an evocative description of those five days when Lee and Barnes looked out for an outlaw’s expected visit at his uncle’s farm. Hidden in the woods and lying on different species of weed and grass, Lee patiently waits while Barnes insists that their days are being wasted. The younger agent is pretty sure that this outlaw is expecting them to be on surveillance so they should expect that he will not come. The older agent is amused by his suppositions and shrugs him off, blaming his restlessness on his youthful energy trapped by the inactivity of waiting.
The prose deftly switches to various tones with the author’s masterly command of free indirect narration. At times, it’s reminiscing, then poignant, then casual, then sarcastic, then even informational. There is this bit that explains how gut feelings can transform into hunches, told as an aside as Lee and Barnes continue looking out at the farm. There is also a part where the narration becomes a list. Items include descriptions of the place and the passage of time, a sketch of Barnes from Lee’s perspective, the things that the outlaw may do, and a smattering number of farm activities.
In the end, something happens. This is most likely what has stuck with Lee all these years. The events are described in a sort of time lapse with two narratives running concurrently. Indeed, what happened at that stake out is crystallized by time. It’s a hard remembrance of Barnes, whom Lee admits is like a son to him. Why is Lee fond of Barnes? Why does he keep coming back to these long and slow five days? What happened to Barnes? What happened to Lee?
A few minutes after listening to this story, I thought of Lee and Barnes waiting by the woods. My heart was a hurt a little. Don’t be fooled. It may be a stake out story but the action comes from everywhere. Like Lee, I’m already looking back at it. The imagery, the storytelling, ah, this story has just started to crystallize in me.
Listen to Thomas McGuane reading this story at The New Yorker Fiction Podcast.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars