MARK KAMINE

THE LATE STYLE OF THOMAS MCGUANE

WHETHER YOU ARE A WRITER OR A BIRD-DOG TRAINER, GROWING UP IS ABOUT LEARNING HOW NOT TO SHOW OFF.

DISCUSSED: Edward Said, Proximate Influence, Idiomatic Patterns, Wax Bullets, Comedy with Political Heft, Bonefish, Doingness, Inexpert Men Sinning Against Nature, Cumulative Disaster, Horseback Riding, The First Bowel Movement after Thanksgiving, Ring Lardner, The Victorians, Quiescence, Grackle Droppings, Mytho-Historical Realism, Baba Ram Dass, Dr. Hilarius, Peter Fonda, Montana, Psilocybin, Branding
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

THE SWERVE OF MOLECULES

Thomas McGuane’s recent book of stories, Gallatin Canyon (2006), compels a look back over nearly forty years of work. McGuane has steadily produced novels, stories and screenplays, and essays on sports and pastimes like fishing and horseback riding. He has been quietly influential and subtly subversive.[1] Coursing through his work is a current of strident silliness—funny names, wacky characters, outsize occurrences—that flows from Mark Twain, picks up Ring Lardner and others early in the twentieth century, and adds Joseph Heller and Thomas Pynchon, post–World War II.

In spite of this, McGuane is hard to place. The humor is evident from the start, but there is something stylishly askew. The early novels The Sporting Club (1969), The Bushwhacked Piano (1971), and Ninety-two in the Shade (1973), while full of oddballs in slapstick situations, also feature formalities of diction and syntactical quirks (“Stanton beckoned”; “Little comfort derived from the slumberous heat of the day”) that seem plucked from the Victorians. The Sporting Club’s protagonist even puts himself to sleep reading Thackeray. Complex intellectual formulations pop up, the following (from Ninety-two) occasioned by its narrator’s imagining his “aging lame” father in a whorehouse—horrible thought perhaps, though the narrator wonders if quiescence would be even worse: “A silent man wastes his own swerve of molecules; just as a bee ‘doing its number on the flower’ is as gone to history as if it never was. The thing and its expression are to be found shaking hands at precisely that point where Neverneverland and Illyria collide with the Book of Revelation under that downpour of grackle droppings that is the present at any given time.” One imagines young readers at that time (1973) pausing here to light up, musing, “Like, wow, man.” Early McGuane is full of such moments.

Still, McGuane’s work dodges the then-discernible categories. He was not part of the Barth/Barthelme/Hawkes wing of mytho-historical realism, though he seems to have been a fan, or at least a reader. Critic Dexter Westrum reports that a friend remembered young McGuane paying a quarter for a “first-edition hardcover of The End of the Road, John Barth’s scarcest title.” (Biographical information comes from Westrum’s useful introductory study Thomas McGuane unless otherwise noted.) And while Richard Brautigan (along with Carlos Castaneda and Baba Ram Dass) gets a mention in McGuane’s 1992 novel Nothing but Blue Skies, McGuane is never fixedly part of the hippie-lit set. Pynchon’s 1966 novel, The Crying of Lot 49, does seem to have some bearing on the case. Pynchon, like McGuane, goes readily to comic extremes, and indulges in similarly trippy intellectualizing. Pynchon’s college pal Richard Fariña, whose campus romp Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me was published soon after Crying and sported a Pynchon blurb, might have come to McGuane’s attention. But Fariña, like Pynchon a student of Nabokov’s at Cornell, comes off as Joyce-struck. Classicisms and interior monologue often get in the way of his tenderly slapsticky, innocently iconoclastic prose. Early McGuane is winnowed clean of modernism’s more oppressive effects.

In a cheeky yet revealing early interview with writer-pal Jim Harrison (1971, reprinted in Harrison’s collection Just Before Dark [1991]), two excursions to literary shrines are mentioned. The writers visit “The Custer Battlefield of Thomas Berger fame” and “the Blackfeet reservation in Browning, Montana, to see the birthplace of James Welch.” Berger seems a natural fit for McGuane—a Midwesterner, funny as hell, with an at times delicately ironic notion of phrasing also seen in early McGuane.[2] James Welch at the time had published a book of poetry and would go on to write a series of harsh and masterful novels still perhaps too stark and true to Native American experience to achieve deserved popularity.

In the same interview Harrison asks McGuane “how you would derive the novels you would like to write?” McGuane reels off a list of past masters commencing with Cervantes and including Rabelais, Gogol, Joyce, a few Russians, Dickens, and Flann O’Brien. It’s indisputable, and the emphasis on comic tradition seems on target, but there is always an appearance of coyness to these authors’ lists of influences. No Ken Kesey or Robert Stone, literary bigwigs who preceded McGuane as writing fellows at Stanford (Kesey starting his fellowship in 1958, Stone in 1962, McGuane in 1966). Nothing re Pynchon, to whom Harrison compares McGuane’s “unfortunate fetish” for privacy? McGuane is more forthcoming about contemporary influences in a Paris Review interview (fall 1985)—where Walker Percy and Saul Bellow get high marks, among others. As Edward Said, in the posthumous collection On Late Style (2006), remarks on the primacy of proximate influence: “Any style involves first of all the artist’s connection to his or her own time, or historical period, society, and antecedents; the aesthetic work, for all its irreducible individuality, is nevertheless a part—or, paradoxically, not a part—of the era in which it was produced and appeared.” McGuane fits comfortably into any comic canon you’d care to assemble, however international. And on native soil he provides linkage between an outsize postwar figure like Pynchon, whose silliness knows no bounds (see Oedipa Maas, Dr. Hilarius and the secret postal service in 1966’s The Crying of Lot 49), and postmodern writers of comic bent like David Foster Wallace, whose teenage tennis players and killer videotapes beg not to be taken seriously, however parable-like. Pynchon seems determined to stay this course, and it is hard to say what Foster Wallace and his peers will come up with, but one senses in McGuane a shift from the old mode. His later novels have become increasingly less mandarin, less verbally frantic, and less dependably outré. And with Gallatin Canyon, he may have broken off entirely from the established comic concatenation. Here’s Edward Said again, describing in Beginnings: Intention and Method (1975) such authorial discontinuities: “In the gradual development of a writer’s career there occurs a time when he becomes aware of certain idiomatic patterns in his work, or even of his work’s idiolect. Being aware does not necessarily mean that he is obsessively vigilant—although that is possible (there are the cases of Mallarmé and James)—but that he can quote himself, refer to himself, be himself in ways that have become habitual for him because of the work he has already done. What starts to concern him now is the conflict between fidelity to his manner, to his already matured idiom, and the desire to discover new formulations for himself.”

McGuane has periodically stated a desire to move on from his settled ways of working. In the Paris Review interview he expresses a desire not to “go on writing with as much flash as I had tried to do previously” and in a telephone interview quoted in Westrum’s study he echoes the idea: “As you get older, you should get impatient with showing off in literature.” This “impatience” has paid off handsomely in the recent book of stories. Not to say that the flash of McGuane’s youthful productions didn’t throw off a lot of light.

“AMERICA IS A DILDO THAT
HAS TURNED BERSERKLY
ON ITS OWNER.”

Among the many peculiarities of McGuane’s first novel, The Sporting Club, is its absence of a nod to youth or to education, sentimental or otherwise. It is a novel about adults. They are out of control, and childish, and might be said to need to grow up, but none of that is the point. They are not getting an education, do not grow up, and cannot be said to learn much. They fight. They fight with their alleged equals, with the world at large, with their employees, and with their women, unless the women happen to be sensibly steering clear of them. And this, it turns out, will be an idiomatic pattern, to use Said’s phrase, that McGuane will follow with great consistency. It is present in all of his novels, in most of the stories in his first collection, and in his screenplays and the one movie he directed.

The pattern’s first iteration, in The Sporting Club, goes something like this:

James Quinn arrives at the hunting and fishing club to which his father once belonged. Quinn, who has run his father’s manufacturing business into the ground, has been trying with some success to get it back on its feet. Vernor Stanton, old friend, independently wealthy, has relocated to his house at the club with the woman who’d like to be his second wife. Stanton picks a fight with Quinn, to be settled using ancient dueling pistols and wax bullets. Quinn is pelted painfully. Twice. Stanton picks a fight with the club’s manager, who loses his job as a result, though Quinn knows the man is singularly qualified. Stanton fights with the replacement manager, who is pelted. Stanton pulls other stunts, hounding club members, politicians, his suffering paramour, and Quinn. Quinn nevertheless admires Stanton, who eventually goes crazy.

The lineaments of the pattern are herewith established. A wealthy man—business tycoon, landed gentry, spoiled heir—has an Iago-like itch for trouble. Another man, often the filter through which McGuane’s characteristically close-third narration flows, is drawn to this reckless, charismatic, ultimately unknowable Lord of Misrule, while being drawn to his opposite as well. This opposing man, working-class and with an actual, graspable skill, is victimized by his wealthy overseer, in spite of being only fractionally deserving of the treatment. The victim often lives by a “rigid and admirable” code. As to women, they come and, if they’re smart, go. They are typically attractive, active, intelligent, and disapproving of their men’s actions. They attempt reform, without success.

This idiom proves neat and surprisingly flexible. It encompasses issues of class and gender, and easily accommodates extremes of behavior—and thus opportunities for comedy, from the raucous (Stanton steals a bus during the dedication of the Mackinac Bridge, leaving dignitaries stranded high up over the river) to the tender (Nothing but Blue Skies features an aging bad-boy father and his adult daughter who has been “more or less humoring her father since she was six or seven, or at least, when times got tough, tolerating him”).

McGuane is one of the rare contemporary American writers whose characters always do things. They run businesses, put up fences, farm, ranch, guide, fish. They are not people on vacations or grants, they are not professors, critics, writers, or artists—or, when they are, they are artists becoming cattle ranchers, as in Keep the Change (1989). In this way issues of class and money arise naturally, between bosses and workers, and the sense of automatic and persistent injustice is apparent and recurrent. The disadvantaged are abundantly aware of this, even when they themselves are acting badly. There’s a crushing moment at the end of the story “A Skirmish” (To Skin a Cat, 1986) when the dirt-poor father of troubled boys who have been tormenting the story’s narrator nevertheless takes his boys’ side, figuring that in the long run his boys “will go where they’re kicked” while the well-off narrator “will always have something [he] can do.” The hint that the safety net money affords tilts the playing field irreversibly in favor of the upper class gives McGuane’s comedy political heft. As McGuane put it to Harrison, “I suppose I am a bit left of Left. America is a dildo that has turned berserkly on its owner.”

EXACTLY NOBLE FISH
AND THE ASSHOLE
FROM CONNECTICUT

Worker bees may not fare well in his novels and stories, but McGuane can be seen to show them due respect. In McGuane’s first novel, club manager Olson with the “rigid and admirable ideas” also “kept only the fish he needed.” There’s an appreciation of the rules of necessity, of a natural ecological carefulness, that is admirable in these characters. Also admirable—and clearly admired by McGuane—is the sheer skill involved in doing something well, in knowing something through and through. He explains to the Paris Review interviewer that in his third novel, Ninety-two in the Shade, he explored “the preoccupation with process and mechanics and ‘doingness’ that has been a part of American literature from the beginning—it’s part of Moby-Dick. The best version of it, for my money, is Life on the Mississippi, which is probably the book I most wish I’d written in American literature.” The “doingness” in Moby-Dick (sailing, whaling) and Life on the Mississippi (piloting steamboats) becomes, in Ninety-two, guiding skiffs for tourist fishermen pursuing the skittish bonefish and permit found off the Florida Keys. Here Thomas Skelton, a masterful student of the pursuit, has recently become a guide. On his first job, he has trouble coping when an inept nabob accidentally hooks a rare prize, “a fish that was exactly noble, thought Skelton, who began to imagine the permit coming out of a deep-water wreck by the pull of moon and tide, riding the invisible crest of the incoming water, feeding and moving by force of blood, only to run afoul of an asshole from Connecticut.” McGuane’s rhetorical skill—moving from the lyrical evocation of “moon and tide” and “the invisible crest of the incoming water” into the clunky, comic “asshole from Connecticut”—underlines the point: the inexpert man sins against nature. McGuane included the scene in the 1975 movie he made of Ninety-two, allowing us to follow Skelton as he hops off the skiff and traces fishing line into a mangrove creek. The image of concentration on the actor’s face (Peter Fonda played Skelton), the mangrove branches he ducks his way through, and the careful way he handles the trapped fish once he reaches it convey nicely Skelton’s skill. The surreptitious freeing of the fish, out of sight of the asshole from Connecticut, perfectly punctuates the scene.[3]

Expertise also attaches to ranching and all its chores and offshoots. McGuane has lived on Montana ranches for almost as long as he’s been a published writer, and the processes of maintenance and improvement feature frequently in his fiction and nonfiction. In Nobody’s Angel (1981), the troubled and aimless protagonist has only his horsemanship as bedrock: “Patrick used spurs like a pointing finger, pressing movement into a shape, never striking or gouging. And horseback, unlike any other area of his life, he never lost his temper, which, in horsemen, is the final mark of the amateur.” Some Horses (1999), a nonfiction look at training, using, and competing with cattle-ranching horses (known as cutting horses), contains some of McGuane’s most meticulously descriptive and effortlessly analogic writing, in which the lessons of horse riding seem to stand in for lessons of life.

“A cutting horse not only has to be quicker than the cow but also has to have the strategic sense to deal with the cow’s bold first moves. The rider, through weight shifts and other body signals (such as leg pressure and touches of the spurs), can tell the horse what he thinks the cow will do. The rider must also react without interference to moves the horse devises on his own. These shared signals constitute the elusive ‘feel’ of cutting.”

And McGuane is not unaware of connections between properly learned process or technique and proper living:

I once gave Eugen Herrigel’s little masterpiece Zen in the Art of Archery to Buster [a famed cutting-horse trainer] to read and he concluded that its application to horsemanship was that if you are thinking about your riding you are interfering with your horse.

Process (“doingness”) mastered to this extent comes to feel analogous not only to proper living but to proper writing, and McGuane’s approach does seem to include an element of Zenlike dedication to writing as process, or at least a workerlike dedication to putting in the hours. About his writing apprenticeship he has this to say: “I thought that if you didn’t work at least as hard as the guy who runs a gas station then you had no right to hope for achievement. You certainly had to work all day, every day. I thought that was the deal. I still think that’s the deal.”

McGuane, a cutting-horse rider who has won championships himself, seems to have done his share of fence repairing, roping, branding, and herding. He is also psychologically astute and unsentimental, quite aware that expertise—and the hard work that goes into it—is not always at the service of enlightenment. A character in Ninety-two, a veteran fishing guide with rigid and admirable ideas like so many of McGuane’s working men, ultimately commits an act of pointless violence for no other reason, it seems, than so that he can be said to have stuck to his word. And in the essay “Close to the Bone” (from An Outside Chance: Essays on Sport, 1980), McGuane shows the subtler way expertise can be used for starkly non-Zen ends: “The difficulty in seeing fish gives the veteran a real opportunity to lord it over the neophyte, gives him a chance to cultivate those small nuances of power that finally reveal him to be the Captain of the Skiff.” And then there’s The Bushwhacked Piano’s protagonist, who refuses to read his girlfriend’s “favorite D. H. Lawrence novels because he said Lawrence always tried to be ‘at one’ with things.” “We weren’t born in a Waring blender,” he says, evincing a healthy dose of skepticism at any idea that “oneness” is achievable.

Yet on balance, McGuane seems to side with the Zen archers, the cutting-horse riders and fishing guides, and against the well-financed tourists and the captains of industry playing games with their employees’ lives and livelihoods. When a character in his most recent novel, The Cadence of Grass (2002), stops to consider another of those hardworking ranch hands, her thoughts elevate work to something like art: “She unconditionally realized that cattle, buildings, fences—the ‘improvements’—were stays in the face of general impermanence even as they shared as a principal characteristic the ongoing likelihood of dying or falling down. Alone of her family, Evelyn understood horses and their use, and also that however far back in the legends of horsemanship Bill’s talents reached, they were most definitely his gamble against eternity.”

ALL KINDS OF FUNNY

McGuane has produced, in his own gamble against eternity, more than a dozen books. The fiction has been consistently comic, though recent novels have pared down absurdities and the orotund rhetoric of the early books. In place of a doctor named Proctor and an entrepreneur selling bat towers for mosquito control coast to coast (The Bushwhacked Piano), we get a family named Whitelaw whose patriarch provisionally wills his bottling company to the son-in-law who once went to prison to protect him (The Cadence of Grass). During this slow shift from Punch-and-Judy outrageousness to gentler comic realism, McGuane has employed a talent for apt and visual metaphor. Thus a suburban setting, in Keep the Change: “On most lawns, a tiny white newspaper lay like a seed.” And a couple making love, in Nobody’s Angel: “Suddenly it was out of their control, like a movie film that has come off its sprockets, leaving vivid incomprehensible images.” He can write with wittily aphoristic economy: “I always thought farming was a highly evolved form of mowing the lawn.” And like the best novelists, his ear for dialogue is attuned not only to the way people are saying the words they speak but also to what they are really saying when speaking them. After being struck by her husband, a woman lies on the floor, “lightly fingering the discoloration around her left eye. ‘I’m a chump if I don’t call a cop,’ she said, using a diction she seldom used unless she was trying to reveal the actual sordid texture she saw in her life” (Something to Be Desired, 1984). Communication, then, is never simply information; it is always, in some way or other, manipulation.

He convincingly ties the momentary concerns of his characters to the sweep of American and, more specifically, Western history. (Not, in McGuane’s view, an uplifting movement.) A character in Nothing but Blue Skies takes a job reclaiming goods for interior decorating use. “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 atmosphere directly,” the character reflects, “without tediously waiting for human life to create it.” As McGuane puts it elsewhere, everything seems suitable for “the fiesta of consumption that was our national life.”

McGuane can be all kinds of funny. He set out to be a comic novelist and studied, as he told the Paris Review, “comic literature from Lazarillo de Tormes to the present.” His comedy ranges widely. He tosses off tidbits—a restaurant in Nothing but Blue Skies called “Amazing Grease”—and revs up for extended rides, often when a character is on a bender, as when in the same novel the protagonist sits down to talk with a woman in the woman’s boyfriend’s truck and ends up stealing the truck, getting it stuck in the mud, and then putting the prongs of a forklift through its door while trying to free it up. Like any good comedian, McGuane is not beyond crudity: “Melvin Blaylock was thinking how the opening rounds of a divorce were like the first bowel movement after Thanksgiving, awful and unforeseen.” And he’s perfectly happy to puncture pretensions: “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 jokiness and tendency to go for broad laughs do give rise to concerns. Westrum reports on McGuane expressing admiration for García Márquez, Günter Grass, Faulkner, and Melville and worrying “that in comparison, his own work may be rather thin.” Westrum then quotes from the Paris Review interview, where McGuane talks about finding “a way to avoid trivializing the serious stuff without undermining the comedy of it.” Certainly each novel so far contains characters or situations that push at the boundaries of a far-fetched reality: a retired rock star nails his hand to the front door of his old flame’s house in Panama (1978); the patriarch of the Whitelaw family drugs his son-in-law to steal a kidney for a business friend (The Cadence of Grass). Inverting McGuane’s expressed concern about this matter, you could say that comedy’s occasional triviality has a way of undermining the serious stuff.

THE REAL THING
IS THE PLAIN THING.

Some fifteen years ago McGuane told Westrum, “As you get older, you should get impatient with showing off in literature. It is easier to settle for blazing light than to find a language for the real. Whether you are a writer or a bird-dog trainer, life should winnow the superfluous language. The real thing should become plain. You should go straight to what you know best.” Edward Said, following Theodor Adorno, calls this winnowing directness “late style,” a notion Said illustrates, in On Late Style, chiefly by discussing the late musical achievements of Beethoven, Strauss, Mozart, and others, though writers do figure in. In remarks concluding a brief analysis of the poet Constantine Cavafy, Said attempts a definition of “the prerogative of late style”:

It has the power to render disenchantment and pleasure without resolving the contradiction between them. What holds them in tension, as equal forces straining in opposite directions, is the artist’s mature subjectivity, stripped of hubris and pomposity, unashamed either of its fallibility or of the modest assurance it has gained as a result of age and exile.[4]

The stripping of “hubris and pomposity” that Said writes of may not be far off from McGuane’s desire to stop showing off, to avoid trivializing the serious stuff. In any case it happens to be where his writing has been heading. Recent novels eschew earlier verbal pyrotechnics and exaggeration. The language has become more direct, the terrain more realistic. In the stories in Gallatin Canyon, McGuane finds a way of maintaining the comic stance without forfeiting the weight of seriousness. Partly he accomplishes this by relinquishing patently silly, if greatly amusing, effects (punning names, outlandish stunts and pursuits, cartoonish careers). Partly the material itself, aging and death, lends weight. The sentences are rich with life-knowledge and assembled for maximum effect in chunky paragraphs that develop a rolling momentum, leading always in the arc of the stories to disappointment, confusion, or a nostalgia-tinged sense of things having gone downhill. In “Aliens,” a retired Bostonian, a corporate lawyer, moves west to attempt to reclaim his youth and finds himself lonely in the country and longing for companionship. “Believing that the great beauty of the place would have a possibly sweeping impact on an out-of-towner, he began to think of inviting a lady friend for a visit, a benign calculation that enlivened him considerably. At his age, a smorgasbord of widows lay before him. Surprisingly hale, several had undergone a kind of spiritual tune-up with the departure of their husbands and had become wonderful, even creative, company. There were a few with whom he’d had flings as much as forty years before.” He ends up hosting one of these women with mildly disastrous results.

Disaster in these stories is always cumulative rather than sudden. McGuane constructs the route to minor downfall with perfectly spaced and delicately offered twists and surprises. Unlike the straightforward suspense about if and when the young protagonist in Ninety-two in the Shade will get shot, Gallatin Canyon’s opening story, “Vicious Circle,” has at its heart the disquieting feeling that events are never quite in your control or quite what you imagine them to be. Small incidents accrue around protagonist John Briggs: someone accuses him of something heinous and vague; a lovely young woman meets him for a drink, then has more than one too many; the girl’s reasonable-seeming doctor father has crackpot ideas as to how to straighten his daughter out. Mistakes and mystery dog Briggs to the end, including a final misdirected confrontation at the young woman’s wedding. The jealous groom angrily accosts Briggs, who defuses the situation, then finds himself as baffled as ever by what life has tossed his way.

“Miracle Boy” takes a scalpel to bourgeois familial gentility during the slow death of the matriarch of an Irish family from New England. McGuane expertly modulates his boy-narrator’s diction, conveying both the family’s elevated sense of itself and the cruder emotions running beneath the surface. “Aunt Constance served the funeral dinner with a kind of pageantry, abetted by her daughters, the two little shits Kathleen and Antoinette.” With the death of the boy’s grandmother, family ties unravel, and what becomes apparent to the boy is how at odds his mother, her sisters and brothers, and just about everyone else in his narrow world have always been. The world—both the boy’s and the wider one—are irrevocably changing, yet some things persist. “My relatives were certainly not ruling the world, and they went about their lives with high spirits. While their certainties, like everyone else’s, were soon to be extinguished by the passage of time, their ebullience was permanent, and I say this having seen two of them expire from cancer.” The boy does, in the end, remain close to his mother, and the story closes with a gentle sense of peace not all that different from the snowfall that ends James Joyce’s “The Dead.”

“Old Friends,” another story featuring John Briggs, is late McGuane at his best. Briggs receives a surprise visit from Erik Faucher. Briggs and Faucher had attended boarding school and college together and have maintained one of those rivalrous friendships McGuane’s novels are full of. Faucher in his destructiveness and charm harks back to Stanton in The Sporting Club, as Briggs does to Quinn, forced to play straight man to the antics of a lubricious renegade. The story packs into its short span the density of lifetimes.

Their wives had despised each other. Carol was a classic but now extinct type of Mount Holyoke girl from Cold Spring Harbor, New York, a legacy whose mission it was to bear forward to new generations the Mount Holyoke worldview. When their daughter, Elizabeth, was expelled from the college for drug use, Erik’s insistence that there were other, possibly more forgiving institutions had placed him permanently outside the wall that sheltered his wife and child. When, even with certified rehabilitation, Elizabeth failed to be reinstated at Mount Holyoke, she lost interest in college altogether and joined the Navy, where she was immediately happy as a machinist’s mate. Faucher was bankrupt by then, a result of habitual overextension, and his inability to support Carol in the style to which she had been accustomed led to divorce and Carol’s current position as a receptionist at a hearing-aid outlet on Route 90 between Boston and Natick. Very few years had brought them to this, and neither quite understood how.

The whole story is evocative of the ambiguities of aging, of life lived not quite properly. Briggs is uncertain how to respond to neighbors who surreptitiously enter his house to steal beers. His work as a negotiator has put him in the middle of a battle between two small towns for a flag manufacturing company. One of the towns will be killed off by whatever settlement Briggs works out. And the old male codes of behavior, the dismantling of which has always been of interest to McGuane, make things no clearer. Briggs and Faucher have remained friends in spite of steady discomfort with and occasional detestation for each other. “Sometime earlier they had been sold loyalty much as the far-fetched basics of religion are sold to the credulous.”

McGuane has not lost his sense of humor, though it’s leavened by loss and the burdens of age that he has both men carry. Sex is an understandable path to disappointment. Here Faucher slips into self-pity as he relates his encounter with a woman: “You can’t imagine the difficulty I had preserving the pathetic taco I was trying to sell as an erection in the face of all that enthusiasm for family.” As we get older, age takes a physical toll. And without any assurance of the commonly understood addition of wisdom. At the end of “Old Friends,” Briggs relates the story of his friendship with Faucher to a stranger, concluding that at last a chapter of his life is over. The stranger’s terse and dismissive response—“Do you actually believe that?”—puts in question the whole lesson-learned mentality.

McGuane has never been a proponent of the easy answer. A fish moving by “force of blood” may be “exactly noble,” but people get no such pass. At best, they achieve a craftsman’s expertise—guiding, riding, fishing. And expertise is a guarantee only of itself. Wider knowledge or continued growth may not be in the cards. “The bonefisherman has a mildly scientific proclivity for natural phenomenology insofar as it applies to his quest, but unfortunately he is inclined to regard a flock of roseate spoonbills only in terms of flying objects liable to spook fish.” A writer’s style—a similarly practicable craft in McGuane’s world—holds no promise of ongoing improvement. Michael Wood, in his introduction to On Late Style, points out that it “can’t be a direct result of aging or death, because style is not a mortal creature, and works of art have no organic life to lose.” Style does not grow, like a plant, based on soil and rainfall, or like a fish or a horse, based on breeding and instinct and environment. It is a willed thing. Post–Gallatin Canyon, McGuane may choose to bring back elements of high comedy to the work—the pranks and tricks, the goofy names, the far-out characters. His novels have been reliably entertaining and always worth a look. It’s rare that someone this far along manages to raise expectations, however. McGuane has managed to upset the norm. He has become, in this sense, unreliable. Which means we have in his case something other than more of the same to look forward to.

  1. You see something of him in the work of his friends Barry Hannah and Jim Harrison, as radiant as literary points can get in a short span. Harrison’s heady machismo style pops up all over (including in such unlikely places as Julia Glass’s National Book Award–winning Three Junes) while Southern writers are still working out the ramifications of Hannah’s amazingly riotous early output (see Padgett Powell and John Dufresne, among others). Fans of Hannah’s sidesplitting short novel Ray (1980) might find of interest Dr. Proctor, a minor character appearing late in McGuane’s second novel, The Bushwhacked Piano (1971).
  2. Berger came from Ohio. McGuane grew up and went to college in Michigan before moving west, with stops here and there.
  3. The scene is one of the most successful in the otherwise rambling if genial movie made of Ninety-two in the Shade, McGuane’s sole directorial credit, also notable for the priceless handling of McGuane’s tangy, often highfalutin dialogue by actors Warren Oates and Harry Dean Stanton, and for the picnic-table catfight between Margot Kidder and Elizabeth Ashley, with both of whom McGuane was romantically involved at the time, the heyday of his “Captain Berserko” days. Ashley’s memoir, Actress: Postcards from the Road (1978), includes an irresistibly gossipy couple of chapters about her time with McGuane. There is for example a description of the author in “Day-Glo cowboy shirt and flowers in his hair” riding a train in from Connecticut to New York, he and Ashley tripping on psilocybin mushrooms.
  4. Certainly the phrase “age and exile” has a host of meanings for a writer like Said, Palestinian and engaged as he was, and the polemical thrust of his study may, for all I know, be chiefly, if subtextually, political (thus the stress on a late style “that involved a nonharmonious, nonserene tension” as opposed to one in which “the aged hero is portrayed as having finally attained a remarkable holiness and sense of resolution”). There is nevertheless (I’d like to hope) a purely aesthetic application of Said’s appreciation of lateness, useful when looking at the productions of artists as they age without regard for politics.

Mark Kamine has written for the New York Times Book Review and the Times Literary Supplement. He works on movies and recently line produced Interview, directed by Steve Buscemi. He lives in New Jersey, exit 151.

Illustration by Tony Millionaire

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