APRIL 17, 2015
EARLY ON, Thomas McGuane’s novels, The Sporting Club (1969), The Bushwhacked Piano (1971), and particularly Ninety-Two in the Shade (1973), caught the eyes of the critics for their manic characters and dark, stylistic exuberance. In Ninety-Two in the Shade, the protagonist, Thomas Skelton, to whom we are introduced as being “in a globe of his own hallucinatory despair,” is eventually fooled by his father into taking mushrooms, a scene complemented by them filling their lungs with helium from a cylinder. The scene is perfectly and economically described in drug-induced detail: “Skelton’s father crawled around on the floor, tears of helpless laughter dripping before him. Skelton took one last look into the drawer — silverware and corkscrew maniacally arrayed there — and leaned up against the wall laughing convulsively.” The whole of the book, besides being an account of Skelton’s equally hallucinatory sexual needs, is a tale of rival fishing guides. This is one of McGuane’s favored tricks. He presents a pair of characters, usually male, one of whose vulnerabilities and self-doubts are measured the more thoroughly of the two. Skelton ends up being shot in the heart while bone fishing off Key West by his competitive nemesis, Nichol Dance.
McGuane subsequently crashed his Porsche on a Texas highway. This was followed by a string of tumultuous affairs and marriages while he made forays into scriptwriting with the movies Rancho Deluxe (1975) and The Missouri Breaks (1976). The dark, comic McGuane is probably as much conjured by the movie The Missouri Breaks as by anything else. It was directed by Arthur Penn, who by then was a proven master of hallucinatory violence (see the 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde), starring Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, and Kathleen Lloyd. A hallmark of the movie, for me at least, is the strange sets, the tiny houses and a tiny garden plot implanted against huge backdrops of landscape: it’s as if the cinematographer had a head cold that threw all perspective awry. Also, we have Brando’s additions to the script, including his Mother Hubbard dresses, and the extraordinary, vivid violence of the shuriken, or Ninja throwing star, with which he kills one of Nicholson’s compatriots. Violence is the American way. It and the weapons to facilitate it are our chief cultural export, and to this day McGuane seeks the fictive inspiration it offers.
Though hailing from the upper Midwest (Michigan), McGuane turned his attention more to Northwestern, or Montanan settings. Perhaps he sensed that there was a kind of agrapha, or something unwritten and waiting to be opened up in the region, though certainly there was an enormous body of Native oral literature ahead of him, even some “high” literature, like Harold Davis’s Pulitzer Prize–winning Honey in the Horn (1935). The movies were among McGuane’s Montana works, followed by a string of six novels (beginning with Nobody’s Angel, 1981), works of nonfiction (chiefly paeans to his more salubrious fascinations with cutting horses and fly fishing), and short story collections (To Skin a Cat, 1986, and Gallatin Canyon, 2006).
His most recent collection, Crow Fair, consists of stories about what McGuane at age 75 must have come to take the long view upon: unhappy relationships, castaway family members, yet more castaways serving as prisms through which another character may be revealed to himself, including the mentally challenged and the demented. It’s predominantly, but not exclusively, a book of male characters. The women among them, with a couple of notable exceptions, are for the most part merely serviceable stand-ins providing part of the backdrop for the men who are caught between being upstanding on the one hand (small-town car salesmen, bankers, doctors) and hopelessly lost in their relationships on the other. There are marriages on the verge of divorce, relationships foundering on known but unstated deceit. One pictures the characters, never mind the hardscrabble wind-blown country, as Edward Hopper figures glimpsed through a window, half-undressed and sitting at the ends of their beds, set implacably against an equally implacable world. It’s pretty grim stuff. The book has 17 stories in all, and the first half seems largely made up of these slight things, hard-bitten little gems that only occasionally lapse into overdrive, the berserk language McGuane is known for.
In one a corpse floats downriver. In another, there’s a man who loves fishing, but who dies fishing and also floats downriver while his wife wonders if he’s with that other woman, Francine. In yet another, there’s the boy who is building a collection of stolen hubcaps and in the meantime sees a mentally challenged boy victimized, then “transferred to a special school.” This is McGuane’s favored trick of presenting a pair of male figures again. There’s a conjunction between the mentally challenged boy, for whom the protagonist feels not completely understood affection, the boy’s fate (being sent away), and the piling up of lawlessly acquired hubcaps. And in yet another story, a suspicious husband tracks his wife to where she said she’d be with their friends having pizza, but he doesn’t find her there. What is good about these stories is their indirection, and the sense that just under the surface is a swelling about to turn into a terror. There’s something Raymond Carver–esque about them. What is off-balance, or half-hidden in relationships, comes sneakily to the surface through what is said and known by the characters, while being but partially grasped by the reader, and so only intimated.
The second half of the book seems different. By and large, the stories are longer and seek a fuller expression. Some of them are outstanding, and have an undercurrent of grudging spirituality, or at least a countervailing compassion for how things must end for all of us. I will mention but four of the stories: “The Good Samaritan,” “Shaman,” “River Camp,” and the title story, “Crow Fair.”
In the first, an advanced con man, the Samaritan, has appeared to help an injured gentleman farmer, Szabo, who slipped while dismounting his prized John Deere tractor. Szabo is filled with self-importance. He grows racehorse-quality, high-grade alfalfa as a kind of philanthropy. The con man calls himself Barney. He claims to have a PhD, a lie that promises to give him away some day, and he has his eyes on a million-dollar Charlie Russell painting of a night stampede — one of the few Russell night pictures in existence — that’s owned by Szabo’s mother. Barney has a destabilizing effect upon Szabo. He insists that he’s a “respectable person” and declines to leave the farm after he’s finished baling the hay and Szabo has recovered from his injury. Barney has a gift “for slipping into a community.” He takes over Szabo’s life and absconds with the painting, and leaves Szabo feeling shamed and defeated before his mother.
In “Shaman,” a young man named Rudy appears and presents himself as a shaman to a woman, Juanita, who, being alone in the house and largely ignorant of what a shaman is, telephones her husband and on his advice reports Rudy to the sheriff. Rudy turns out to be a “low-risk mental patient” who just walked out of the Warm Springs Hospital. When he’s captured, the sheriff thinks he has a gun in his backpack and believes Rudy is going for it, but after Rudy is shot dead by the sheriff, the backpack is revealed to contain only “pebbles, a dead bird, and a book on teaching yourself to dance.” While Juanita and her husband are trying to mend themselves of this misbegotten disaster, we learn about Rudy’s mother and her grief. She’s an impoverished, unkempt woman who comes to see Juanita and her husband. She smokes and, in a brilliant, telling detail, uses one of Juanita’s glasses as an ashtray. She asks if her son gave Juanita some reason to call the law. It’s a story of callous misapprehension compounded several times over, and of the cost of such misapprehension. It ends with Juanita at the kitchen window after the mother has left. Juanita has dumped out the cigarette butt and ash. She tells her husband that the woman had eyes like a cat, by implication seeing everything. He leaves the room, not understanding, or not wishing to, and Juanita is left to look at where the departed mother’s car had been.
In “River Camp,” Jack and Tony are on a fishing trip with an eccentric and misbegotten guide named Hewlitt, who becomes a catalyst for what has gone wrong between the two old friends. Hewlitt seems crazy, a magician — he alone catches fish, and he is revealed later in the story to be not Hewlitt at all, but one of several other people: he has multiple licenses and ID cards. Like the good Samaritan, he’s an impostor, but one of an entirely different order. He’s also a little bit like Nichol Dance in Ninety-Two in the Shade. He is overtly dangerous, having brought Jack and Tony into the backcountry by boat through a treacherous stretch of river that only he stands a chance of negotiating on the way out. Then the dark conjurer, Hewlitt, is killed by bears that break into his tent, and the two friends, or doubles, are left to their own resources to try the boat. In the meantime, being alone together, they have to dwell upon the hurt that truly binds them together. It’s Jack whom we’ve been following most closely. He’s been off-balance, keeping things half-hidden from himself, and as the story evolves has become increasingly vulnerable to the fact that he was cuckolded years ago by his wife and Tony.
Finally, in “Crow Fair,” we have two brothers, one of whom is Earl, a banker and the first-person narrator, who throughout his life has felt that his brother, Kurt, an orthodontist, has been favored by his mother. Their mother is an upstanding woman, a queen, a woman of reputation in the town, a Cub Scout den mother, who also understood classical music, who took her children and their friends to hear La Bohème, of all things. Earl and Kurt are caring for her now in her old age as she flickers in and out, then goes deep into dementia. The brothers do well enough by her for a time, remembering their past when they’re together, but then upon discovering that she has a secret in her dementia, a nickname — Doozy — and that there likewise might be a man in her past, similarly nicknamed — Wowser — Kurt goes to pieces. He wants to bring his mother home. He succeeds in tracking down Wowser, a man with whom his presumably spotless mother had an affair, an Indian named White Clay, who comes to visit the mother, although she is beyond responding to him.
Without naming it, McGuane has again tapped into a primal energy, and, strange as it seems, also into a half-happy turn of energy … the doubles, the brothers, one of whom, Earl, the reader is following closely, is the recipient of confusion, of things being off-center. It’s also an excursion into an Oedipal myth, the mother’s life so hidden from her sons for so long, the second of whom, Kurt, has discovered that their mother was nothing more, as he puts it in his deep disappointment, than “a cheating housewife.” But ultimately, to Earl, her funeral is revealed as “a kind of helium levitation.” It seems to him that everyone in the crowd of people is underwater and that he alone has a boat. Unlike the friends in “River Camp,” he can sail this boat away. Earl looks down over the side of the boat as it passes through gentle waves. This is the one story that clearly has McGuane’s grudging spirituality, though admittedly still comic. Earl is sunning himself as he goes, and thinks of himself happily advancing at the bank where he works at funneling “the universal lubricant,” money.