Had Thomas McGuane’s life ended before forty, lost behind the wheel or in some small-town motel misadventure, he’d be remembered today with the same cultish sense of loss held for such late literary contemporaries as Fred Exley, Tom McHale, and George Trow. The epitome of the bad-boy author, McGuane spent his thirties, which nearly coincided with the 1970s, in the sway of heroic, largely picturesque excess. Somehow, against type, he survived.
His first novel, The Sporting Club, appeared in 1969 and launched a career of great length and depth. Nine others have followed, along with three short story collections, four filmed screenplays, and dozens of personal essays, published in three collections that address his life as a horseman and angler of some accomplishment.
His fiction’s larger themes are alpha male behavior, individual autonomy, and dread, and range from tales of criminal misadventure to sketches of contemporary life out west. A lot happens in all of them. The typical McGuane hero is a self-reliant, fairly skilled guy who, either by overestimating himself or underestimating others, screws up badly.
In righting his own ship, McGuane repaired to his Montana home, the Raw Deal Ranch, to raise horses and recast himself as a regionalist—a sardonic, graceful observer of small town Montana life, a social landscape that closely models the classic American tropes of heroic optimism and failure; his broad subject being: How the West Was Lost. For that he is one of our greatest, and certainly least appreciated, living novelists.
But McGuane was at the start a satirist of broad national concerns. His first four novels exemplify a variety of comic work that was itself going out of style as he wrote. Absurdist in their aim, emblematic of higher disorders in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, the great comic novels of Heller, Bellow, Elkin, Vonnegut, and, yes, McGuane, along with the concurrent movies of Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Mike Nichols and Woody Allen were consumed at the time by an avid public, homeopathic remedies against the madness of the era.
The impulse to laughter remains the animating spirit of McGuane’s work, even as he’s found varied and subtler means of expressing it. His enduring strengths as a writer, obvious at the start, remain: a flair for subtle observation, dramatic, sometimes violent, action, a cast of vivid, often desperate characters, and arch dialogue that’s at once plain and ornate. Even his bit players are alive on the page. Tying it all together all is one of the great narrative voices in American fiction, right up there with Bellow, Ring Lardner and Flannery O’Connor.
The Sporting Club is a very able, conventionally told story of the increasingly lunatic goings-on at an upper-class hunting and fishing club in McGuane’s native northern Michigan. Its WASP membership, descendants of 19th century Robber Barons, run the gamut from conventionally uptight to barking mad.
Here, told in third-person narration, is James Quinn, a second-generation Detroit auto parts manufacturer in residence for the summer, and Quinn’s old partner in schoolboy crime, Vernor Stanton, whose immense inherited wealth allows him a perpetual juvenile revolt from the adult world of business and social standing. The novel’s tried-and-true satiric points include how easily social veneers are stripped away; the incompetence of a hereditary ruling class; and the loathing felt between it and its putatively respectful underlings. The latter are represented by Earl Olive, the club’s sinister groundskeeper whom Stanton gleefully goads into transformative violence.
The Sporting Club has a good first novel’s flaws: simple characterizations, reliance on set pieces, and over-determined gags (such as a club historian named Spengler). There is a gimmicky, multi-headed ending that includes a loony Lord of the Flies reboot, and the grand reveal of a very compromising antique photograph, found in a time capsule opened for the club’s centenary celebration.