Gallatin Canyon (2006), Thomas McGuane’s latest collection of stories, invites a retrospective glance at his output over the past four decades.
His oeuvre encompasses novels, short stories, screenplays and writing on outdoor activities like fishing and horseback riding.
He has had a subtle, yet powerful impact and his artistry is marked by a vein of comicality that originates in Mark Twain and takes in Ring Lardner, Joseph Heller, and Thomas Pynchon in the post-WWII era.
Despite this, it is hard to place McGuane. His humor is obvious from the start, but there is also something peculiarly off-kilter.
His early novels, The Sporting Club (1969), The Bushwhacked Piano (1971), and Ninety-two in the Shade (1973) are filled with eccentric characters in goofy scenarios, but they also contain traditional diction and syntax (“Stanton beckoned”; “Little comfort derived from the slumberous heat of the day”) that appear to be taken from the Victorians.
The Sporting Club ‘s protagonist even puts himself to sleep with Thackeray.
Complex ideas appear, like this one from Ninety-two that is provoked by the narrator’s vision of his “aging lame” father in a brothel – an awful thought, yet the narrator wonders if being still would be even worse: “A man who remains silent wastes his own flow of molecules; it is as if the bee ‘doing its number on the flower’ never existed.
Where Neverneverland and Illyria meet the Book of Revelation in the pouring rain of grackle droppings that is the present, this is where the thing and its expression come together.”
In 1973, when these novels were first published, one can imagine young readers pausing to spark up, thinking, “Like, wow, man.” Early McGuane is full of these moments.
Despite his work not fitting into any categories, young McGuane still had an appreciation for John Barth’s “The End of the Road”.
According to critic Dexter Westrum, a friend remembered him paying 25 cents for the first edition hardcover.
Richard Brautigan, Carlos Castaneda, and Baba Ram Dass are all mentioned in Thomas McGuane’s 1992 novel “Nothing but Blue Skies”, yet it is hard to place him in the hippie-lit set.
Thomas Pynchon’s 1966 novel “The Crying of Lot 49” may have had an influence on McGuane due to its similar comic extremes and intellectualizing.
Richard Fariña, a college friend of Pynchon’s, was also a student of Nabokov; his campus novel “Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me” was published shortly after “Crying” and featured a blurb by Pynchon.
Fariña is often Joyce-influenced in his writing with classicisms and monologues. Conversely, McGuane’s early work is free of modernism’s more burdensome elements.
In an early interview between writer-friends Jim Harrison and Thomas McGuane (1971, reprinted in Harrison’s collection Just Before Dark ), two literary destinations are mentioned.
They visited the Custer Battlefield, which was made famous by Berger, and the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning, Montana, where James Welch was born.
McGuane and Berger have similarities, including their Midwestern roots, humor, and delicate irony.
Welch had published a book of poetry, and later wrote a series of novels that were highly precise in expressing Native American experiences, but which may not have achieved the popularity they deserved.
In a discussion with Harrison, McGuane detailed the writers he would draw from for his novels, starting with Cervantes and including Rabelais, Gogol, Joyce, a few Russians, Dickens, and Flann O’Brien.
Omitting the likes of Kesey or Stone, as well as Pynchon, McGuane was more candid with his contemporary influences in a Paris Review interview, praising Walker Percy and Saul Bellow.
Edward Said’s On Late Style (2006) speaks to the importance of proximate influence.
McGuane’s style is certainly in line with the comic tradition, linking Pynchon’s comicalness and Wallace’s postmodern works.
Said’s Beginnings: Intention and Method (1975) acknowledges such authorial discontinuities, with a writer’s career causing him to be mindful of his manner and his already matured idiom, as well as his desire for new formulations.
McGuane has regularly expressed a wish to move away from his accustomed modes of writing. In his Paris Review interview he expressed a wish not to “write with the same level of flare as I had tried formerly” and in a telephone interview that was quoted in Westrum’s study, he mirrored the thought: “When you grow older, you should be intolerant of showing off in literature.”
This “intolerance” has generated successful results in his latest book of stories. Nevertheless, the flash of McGuane’s earlier works did create a significant amount of illumination.
In his debut novel, The Sporting Club, McGuane does not focus on a young protagonist’s journey of learning or education.
The characters are adults and the plot is driven by their struggles with one another, the world, and their partners–unless the women are wise enough to keep their distance.
This theme is consistent throughout McGuane’s work, from his novels, to his stories, to his screenplays and directorial debut.
The initial version of the design, found in The Sporting Club, goes something like this:
James Quinn visits the hunting and fishing club his father used to be a member of.
Quinn, who has been struggling to revive the manufacturing business his father owned, has been making some progress.
Vernor Stanton, an old friend of Quinn’s and now independently wealthy, has moved into his house at the club with a woman who wants to become his second wife.
Stanton challenges Quinn to a duel with ancient pistols and wax bullets, which Quinn loses painfully twice. Stanton goes on to provoke the club’s manager, resulting in him being fired, even though Quinn was aware of his qualifications.
Stanton continues to pick fights with the new manager, and other people including club members, politicians, and his partner.
Despite all this, Quinn still holds Stanton in high regard, until he eventually becomes insane.
The plot structure is already set in place. A wealthy individual, be it a business mogul, aristocrat, or a spoiled heir, has a penchant for stirring up trouble reminiscent of Iago’s.
Someone else, often the narrator of the story, is attracted to this individual despite their recklessness and enigmatic nature, while simultaneously being drawn to a contrasting person who is working-class and has a tangible skill.
This individual is mistreated by their wealthy counterpart, despite not deserving it. They are often described as having a “rigid and admirable” moral code.
As for the women, they come and go, usually being portrayed as beautiful, active, and intelligent but disapproving of their partner’s actions. Despite their attempts to reform them, it never works.
This expression shows neatness and extraordinary adaptability.
It contains elements of class and gender, and can be used to portray extremes of conduct–thus giving rise to humorous situations like when Stanton commandeers a bus during the dedication of the Mackinac Bridge, leaving the guests hanging high in the sky, or when Nothing but Blue Skies depicts a mature bad-boy father and his adult daughter who has been “being lenient with her father since she was a child, or at least, when times were hard, tolerating him”.
McGuane is a remarkably uncommon American author whose characters act, instead of being inactive.
They are entrepreneurs, farmers, cowboys, guides, and anglers.
They are not those on paid leave or funded programs, nor are they educators, critics, authors, or artists. In Keep the Change (1989), the writers portray artists who become ranchers.
At the same time, these stories bring forward the themes of wealth and class struggles between employers and employees. The disadvantaged are conscious of the inequity, even when they behave badly.
The conclusion of “A Skirmish” ( To Skin a Cat , 1986) has a heartbreaking moment when the destitute dad of the children who have been bugging the narrator still takes his children’s side, believing that in the long run his boys “will go where they’re kicked” while the wealthy narrator “will always have something [he] can do.”
The insinuation that the safety net provided by money gives the upper class an irrevocable advantage gives McGuane’s humor a political clout. As McGuane stated to Harrison, “I suppose I am a bit left of Left.
America is a dildo that has turned berserkly on its owner.”
McGuane may not be kind to worker bees in his works, but he still shows them respect.
In his first novel, the club manager Olson holds “rigid and admirable ideas” and only keeps the fish he needs.
This character displays a keenness for the natural environment and the rules of necessity.
McGuane is also enamored with the skill of doing something well, and this is seen in his third novel, Ninety-two in the Shade.
While discussing this book with the Paris Review interviewer, he notes that it reflects a preoccupation with process and mechanics, which has been a part of American literature since the beginning.
He cites Moby-Dick and Life on the Mississippi as the best examples of this.
In Ninety-two, the focus is on guiding skiffs for fishing tourists who pursue the elusive bonefish and permit off the Florida Keys.
This is where Thomas Skelton, a master of the sport, starts guiding.
On his first job, Skelton is unable to handle the situation when an inept tourist accidentally catches a rare fish.
McGuane’s effective writing from the lyrical “moon and tide” to the comedic “asshole from Connecticut” emphasizes the point that the inexpert man violates nature.
McGuane included this scene in the 1975 film adaptation of Ninety-two, and it is depicted by Peter Fonda’s concentration as he navigates the mangrove branches, and his carefulness with the trapped fish.
The discreet freeing of the fish out of sight of the tourist is the perfect end to the scene.
The expertise of ranching and its related activities is something that McGuane has been familiar with for many years, and this can be seen in his fiction and nonfiction works.
As an example, in Nobody ‘s Angel (1981), the main character has a natural affinity with horseback riding, which is depicted as the one area in his life where he is able to remain in control and not lose his temper, something which is seen as a sign of an amateur.
In addition, Some Horses (1999) is a non-fiction work which focuses on training, using, and competing with cattle-ranching horses, and it is filled with descriptive passages and analogies that demonstrate the connection between horse riding and life.
A cutting horse must be able to outpace a cow and also has to have the ability to anticipate the cow’s movements.
The rider conveys his ideas, such as with leg pressure and spurs, of what the cow might do and also has to be able to respond to the horse’s own ideas.
This combination of shared signals constitutes the “feel” of cutting.
McGuane is conscious of the relationship between the acquisition of process and technique and living in a healthy manner.
I gave Eugen Herrigel’s book Zen in the Art of Archery to Buster, a renowned cutting-horse trainer, to read and he eventually came to the conclusion that if someone is pondering their riding, they’re obstructing their horse.
McGuane’s approach to writing appears to involve a type of Zen-like commitment to the process, or a dedication to putting in the hours that is similar to the effort put forth by someone running a gas station.
Regarding his own apprenticeship, McGuane commented, “I believed that if you did not work as hard as someone who runs a gas station, there was no justification for expecting success.
I believed that you had to work all day, every day, and I still believe that is the key to success.”
As a champion cutting-horse rider, McGuane is familiar with the hard labor involved in his trade and has insight into the realities of expertise not always bringing enlightenment.
A character in Ninety-two goes to the extent of committing a senseless act of violence in order to honor his word, while in the essay “Close to the Bone” (from An Outside Chance: Essays on Sport, 1980), McGuane explains the way experts use their expertise to manipulate and control.
The protagonist of The Bushwhacked Piano refuses to read the “favorite D. H. Lawrence novels” of his girlfriend due to his skepticism of the notion of “oneness” being achievable.
McGuane appears to sympathize with the Zen archers, the cowboys, and fishing guides more than the affluent tourists and corporate magnates who treat their workers’ lives and occupations as playthings.
In The Cadence of Grass, a character pauses to appreciate one of the hardworking ranch hands, recognizing that although the ‘improvements’ (i.e. cattle, buildings, and fences) are temporary, they offer Bill (the horseman) a way to challenge the eternity.
In his attempt to cheat time, McGuane has created over a dozen books.
His works have been traditionally humorous, although his more recent novels have stripped away the excessive rhetoric of his earlier work.
In The Bushwhacked Piano, there is a doctor named Proctor and an entrepreneur selling bat towers to repel mosquitoes, while in The Cadence of Grass, the Whitelaw family deals with a patriarch who bequeaths his bottling company to his son-in-law, who was formerly imprisoned to protect him.
As the stories moved away from being over the top and humorous to a more realistic comedy, McGuane has revealed his talent for vivid metaphors.
For example, in Keep the Change: a suburban scene is described as “On most lawns, a tiny white newspaper lay like a seed.”
Similarly, in Nobody’s Angel, a couple are described as “Suddenly it was out of their control, like a movie film that has come off its sprockets, leaving vivid incomprehensible images.”
Additionally, his concise and witty sayings such as “I always thought farming was a highly evolved form of mowing the lawn” are notable.
Furthermore, he is adept at capturing the true meaning of dialogue.
For instance, in Something to Be Desired (1984), a woman is hit by her husband and, as she lightly touches her black eye, she says “I’m a chump if I don’t call a cop,” using a tone that she rarely employs, demonstrating her recognize the unsavory aspects of her reality.
Consequently, it is clear that communication is not only about the exchange of information, but is also a form of manipulation.
McGuane depicts a strong link between the current affairs of his characters and the progression of American and Western history (which, in his opinion, is not a particularly positive one).
In Nothing but Blue Skies, one of the characters takes a job of reclaiming goods for interior decorating.
He muses, “The billiard table of a Butte mining baron ended up as a striking salad bar in Van Nuys, and numerous farm wagons and buckboards met a similar fate in steak joints, shrimp joints, king crab joints.
It was interesting to try to produce an atmosphere directly, without tediously waiting for human life to create it.”
The author also states elsewhere that everything appears suitable for “the fiesta of consumption that was our national life.”
McGuane is known for his humorous writing style. He has studied comic literature, from Lazarillo de Tormes all the way to the present.
His type of comedy can be quite varied.
He might make a subtle joke, such as naming a restaurant in Nothing but Blue Skies “Amazing Grease,” or follow through with an extended gag, like when the protagonist in the same novel steals a truck, gets it stuck in the mud, and then tries to free it with a forklift.
His humor can also be quite crude; for instance, he wrote that “the opening rounds of a divorce were like the first bowel movement after Thanksgiving, awful and unforeseen.”
He also likes to poke fun at those with pretensions, like with his statement “Texas is an oasis of undamaged egos, a place where Birkenstocks, oat bran, foreign films, and Saabs spontaneously catch fire and then smolder grimly in an alien climate.”
McGuane’s propensity to joke around and pursue broad humor may raise eyebrows.
Westrum records McGuane’s appreciation for authors such as Garcia Marquez, Gunter Grass, Faulkner, and Melville and his uncertainty that his work is not as substantial.
Westrum then cites the Paris Review interview, in which McGuane mentions discovering “a way to prevent trivializing the serious aspect of it without sacrificing the comedy.”
Each novel contains characters or circumstances that challenge the line between reality and fantasy: in Panama (1978), a retired rock star nails his hand to his former lover’s door; in The Cadence of Grass, the father of the Whitelaw family drugs his son-in-law to obtain a kidney for a business partner.
As an alternative to McGuane’s expressed worry regarding this issue, one might point out that comedy’s occasional triviality tends to weaken the earnestness of the material.
Around fifteen years ago, McGuane suggested to Westrum that as one grows older, it is better to be impatient with showing off in literature.
He asserted that it is simpler to decide for the brilliant light instead of finding words for the genuine.
He went on to state that, regardless of whether one is a writer or a bird-dog trainer, life should get rid of superfluous language, and the real thing should become evident. He advised that one should proceed to what one knows best.
Edward Said, who drew from Theodor Adorno, names this elimination of nonessential directness “late style,” and he mainly displays this in On Late Style by talking about the late musical accomplishments by Beethoven, Strauss, and Mozart, though authors are also included.
At the end of a concise examination of the poet Constantine Cavafy, Said attempts to explain “the prerogative of late style”.
Possessing the capability to give pleasure and also cause disillusionment while leaving the tension between them intact, is the mature subjectivity of the artist, unburdened by arrogance or pretentiousness, not feeling ashamed of its frailty and the confidence it has earned through age and emigration.
Said’s notion of having to strip away hubris and pomposity is mirrored in McGuane’s writing. Recent works have shifted away from exaggeration, instead opting for more straightforward language and more realistic settings.
In Gallatin Canyon, McGuane is able to find a balance between the comic and the serious.
He does this by leaving out the ludicrous aspects, such as the puns, and focusing on weighty topics such as aging and mortality.
The stories contained within are constructed with sentences that contain life-knowledge, and the paragraphs are designed to give them a rolling momentum that lead to a sense of disappointment, confusion, or nostalgia.
An example of this is in the story “Aliens”, where a retired Bostonian attempts to reclaim his youth by moving west, only to find himself lonely and longing for companionship.
He then decides to host one of the widows he had flings with forty years ago, an endeavor that ends up with mild unfortunate results.
Rather than being sudden, disaster in McGuane’s stories is often the result of a slow build-up of events. In “Vicious Circle,” the first story in Gallatin Canyon, the protagonist, John Briggs, is constantly caught off-guard by small incidents that seem to be out of his control or not what he expects them to be.
He is followed by confusion and suspicion until the climax of the story, when he is mistaken as an unwelcome guest at a wedding and must defuse the situation without any real answers.
The uncertainty of life and the developing nature of disaster is central to this narrative.
McGuane’s “Miracle Boy” skillfully dissects the gentility of a bourgeois family from New England during the decline of the matriarch.
The boy-narrator’s language reflects both the elevated attitude of the family and the underlying raw emotions.
Aunt Constance’s funeral dinner was almost a spectacle, with her daughters Kathleen and Antoinette adding to the spectacle.
The death of the grandmother leads to the breakdown of the family and the boy discovers how divided his relatives were.
While the world keeps changing, some things remain the same. Even though his relatives were not influential, they were still ebullient and the boy saw two of them die from cancer.
In the end, he retains a strong bond with his mother, closing the story with a tranquil atmosphere similar to the snowfall at the end of James Joyce’s “The Dead.”
In “Old Friends,” John Briggs is the main character and the piece is a prime example of late McGuane’s work.
Unexpectedly, Briggs is visited by Erik Faucher, a person he had gone to both boarding school and college with, and the two have had an ongoing competitive relationship that is seen in many of McGuane’s novels.
Faucher is reminiscent of Stanton from The Sporting Club, and Briggs is similar to Quinn in that he is the one that must act responsibly in response to the unruly conduct of his friend. The story is quite powerful, despite its length.
Erik and Carol had hostile feelings towards one another, largely due to the former being a classic Mount Holyoke graduate from Cold Spring Harbor and the latter being a legacy of that worldview.
When their daughter, Elizabeth, was cast out of college for using drugs, Erik thought that there may be more lenient institutions, which placed him on the outside of his family’s situation.
Despite her rehabilitation, Elizabeth did not get reinstated and thus completely lost interest in college, instead joining the Navy as a machinist’s mate.
Faucher was bankrupt, and his inability to provide for Carol’s accustomed lifestyle resulted in their divorce and Carol’s current role as a receptionist at a hearing-aid store on the Massachusetts Turnpike.
In very little time, their situation had gone from one of privilege to poverty, with neither one being able to explain how it happened.
The tale embodies the complexities of aging, of a life not quite lived as it should be. Briggs is unsure of how to respond to those who sneak into his home to take beers.
His job as a negotiator has thrust him into the middle of a conflict between two towns to secure a flag manufacturing firm. One of the towns will be destroyed by whatever agreement Briggs works out.
And the outdated male standards of conduct, which McGuane has always been interested in abolishing, don’t make things any simpler. Despite consistent distress and even hatred sometimes, Briggs and Faucher have kept their friendship.
“At some point they had been sold fidelity much as the farfetched fundamentals of faith are sold to the gullible.”
Though McGuane has not lost his wit, it is tinged with sadness and the struggles of growing older that both men experience.
Sex can be a source of disappointment, as Faucher painfully recognizes in his own experience: “It was very hard to keep up the feeble erection I was attempting to present, given the woman’s strong yearning for a family.”
Age takes a toll on us, and often there is no guarantee that it will bring enlightenment. At the conclusion of “Old Friends,” Briggs shares his friendship with Faucher to a complete stranger, concluding that a chapter in his life has ended.
The stranger’s succinct and unimpressed reply–“Do you really think that?”–casts doubt on the idea that any lesson has been learned.
McGuane has never opted for the easy solution. Though a fish can move according to its “force of blood,” humans do not have such a pass; they can only attain a craftsman’s skill in fishing, riding, and guiding – which, however, does not guarantee any further knowledge or development.
For instance, a bone fisherman may have a scientific interest in the natural phenomena that relate to his quest, but he may not be able to recognize a flock of roseate spoonbills beyond the fact that they are flying objects that could frighten away the fish.
Likewise, a writer’s style – another craft in McGuane’s world – does not promise any further progress.
This is because, as Michael Wood notes in his introduction to On Late Style, style is not a living being and works of art do not have organic lives to be lost.
It is a willed thing, one that cannot be developed like a plant or an animal, depending on its habitat or breeding.
Post- Gallatin Canyon, McGuane may choose to bring back comedic elements to his work, such as pranks, peculiar names, and eccentric characters.
While his novels are always enjoyable and worth reading, it is rare to find a writer, so far in their career, who can surprise readers.
McGuane has managed to do this and become ‘unreliable’ – which means that we can look forward to something other than more of the same.
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