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.
The set pieces are now more strained than startling—in one, Stanton uses a set of antique pistols, loaded with wax pellets, for duels in his basement. These recurring exchanges, which Stanton always wins, are terrifically described, and carry more dramatic weight than they can rightfully bear. A long scene set at the dedication of the Mackinac Island Bridge, a 1958 occasion restaged in the novel’s ca. 1964 present, feels part of an earlier work. Indeed, The Sporting Club’s anti-conformist arrows seemed aimed more at Eisenhower’s America than Nixon’s. There’s no hint of war in Southeast Asia, and young, rich white guys are the actors against their own upper-class order.
McGuane’s idiomatic debut is in 1971’s The Bushwhacked Piano. Winning an award that year from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, it’s a satire intended to reflect larger social calamities than private clubs. Its picaresque hero, Nicholas Payne is another rebellious rich kid, though now with no sense of ever belonging. The book opens with the titular piano ambushed by an 8-year-old Payne with a .22 rifle. He remains a problem child into his twenties, though his sociopathic rampages through an exclusive Detroit suburb probably felt more bracing to readers back when the U.S. was at war with its young people.
The Bushwhacked Piano, more stylistically ambitious than the debut novel, introduces the first of McGuane’s beautiful, troubling, and troubled female protagonists: Ann Fitzgerald, a high school girlfriend Payne’s trying to win back; while the parental Paynes and Fitzgeralds, upright and disapproving, are the inaugural examples of a line of bitter and angry couples, uncommonly blind to their children’s needs, that will reappear in many guises in the rest of McGuane’s fiction.
A dense, declamatory, sometimes hallucinatory prose outfits a national sweep to the novel’s plot, along with Payne’s bona fides as a counterculture hero:
“… he had run up and down America unable to find that apocryphal country in any of its details. His adrenalin cortex spumed so much waste energy that a lot of amazing things happened. And he deliberately changed his highway persona day by day; […] he was variously remembered for his natty dress, for the opposite of that, for his persistent collection of ‘data,’ for his arbitrary and cyclonic speechmaking […] facing enemies with billboard-sized declarations of personal animus, cluttering hundreds of small midland streets with regrettable verbs and nouns…”
Its premise established, the story snaps to life a third of the way in: Payne has motorcycled to Livingston, Montana, where the Fitzgeralds have fled to their hobby ranch intending to keep Ann away from him. He enters the bronco riding competition at the July 4 rodeo (coached by a cowboy, it’s his first ever ride), thereby thrilling Ann in the stands with her appalled parents. The writing here hits a new rhythm, a patter of phrases vivid in immediate detail:
“ ‘Our Number Six rider,’ went the announcement, ‘is a newcomer and an unusual one. Our cowboy is Nick Payne of Hong Kong, China. Nick spent his early years fighting Communism. […] Let’s watch now, Nick Payne of Hong Kong, China, on Ambulance. ’
“Giddy with horror, Payne stood on the platform beside the Number Six bronc chute looking slightly down at Ambulance. […] The ears of Ambulance lay back on his vicious, banjo-shaped skull and the hoofs of Ambulance rang like gunshots on the timber. […]
“He got on. Friendly hands from behind pulled his hat down so he wouldn’t lose it. Payne tried to keep his legs free by Yogic postures—inappropriate here at the rodeo—then dropped them into the stirrups and took his lumps.”
His unexpectedly successful ride further separates Ann from her parents and the dreary young GM executive they want her to marry.
Before leaving Detroit, Payne has encountered the lunatic work of an itinerant one-legged sign painter, one C.J. Clovis: “… a hand-painted sign adorns an opposing brick wall: a weary Uncle Sam in red, white and blue stretches abject, imploring hands to the beholder; a receding chin has dropped to reveal the mean declivity of his mouth, which says, ‘ I NEED A PICK ME UP.’ “ Another sign “showed five crudely drawn French poodles spelling out PILGRIM COUNTRY over […] a ‘farmer’ attacking a ‘housewife’ […] Underneath, ‘Here’s a cucumber you won’t forget!’ ”
Contacting Clovis through the Yellow Pages, Payne volunteers his services and they agree to meet in Livingston. Clovis there reveals his scheme to construct wooden towers to house colonies of bats to sell to mosquito-plagued towns across the U.S. Payne signs on as tower builder and bat collector. Before setting out for their first job in Key West, Florida, Payne indulges in some comic violence with the Fitzgeralds’ ranch foreman, Wayne Codd, a resentful, working-class dimwit with oafish designs on Ann. Spiriting her away at last, the two lovers collect a van full of bats in Wyoming before driving to Florida, and subsequent disaster.
The Bushwhacked Piano succeeds in being original while working several literary claims active at the time: a young drifting hero, a bizarre line of work, even a protagonist whose limbs are fatefully whittled away (all present, for example, in Thomas Pynchon’s V). Setting it apart is McGuane’s amused, observant, and epigrammatic narrative voice, a hovering recording angel.
“The red Texaco star was not so high against the sky as the Crazy Mountains behind it. What you wanted to be high behind the red Texaco star, thought its owner, was not the Crazy Mountains, or any others, but buildings full of people who owned automobiles that needed fuel and service. Day after day, the small traffic heading for White Sulphur Springs passed the place, already gassed up for the journey.”
Unfortunately, in a problem common to satire, The Bushwhacked Piano’s resolution feels more staged than lived. In a Key West hospital for one more amputation, a frightened Clovis, wanting company, prevails upon Payne to finally get treatment for a bad case of hemorrhoids. Payne’s excruciating undoing is one of McGuane’s cheaper shots: a drug-addled internist, one Dr. Proctor (a retired Air Force fighter pilot fresh from Vietnam no less) makes a hash of the procedure.
At the bat tower’s public unveiling shortly after, the released bats fly straight back to Wyoming. Clovis dies of a heart attack in front of an enraged citizenry. Ann dumps the damaged Payne and leaves Key West on a commercial fishing boat, indulging in serial sex with its crew, before reuniting with her young auto exec. The heavy-handed counter-culture sarcasm describing their reunion (“See them, then, running thus towards one another: perfect monads of nullity.”) is McGuane’s professional nadir.
Bushwhacked finishes up with Payne booted from Key West and camping by himself on a Georgia sea island, rather aware of his role in a novel coming to a close: “He felt as if he’d been made an example of; and that, even now, he was part of a demonstration, an exhibit.”
Just before their Key West scheme fails, C.J. Clovis confides to Payne his unease about the town:
“’From a fugitive’s point of view,’ said Clovis, pulling himself together, ‘this is the worst place in the world. You can’t get off the highway from here back to the mainland for a hundred-and-fifty miles. The bastards would have you funneled.’”
This fugitive’s nightmare, the town at the southernmost tip of the U.S., is the setting for McGuane’s next two novels. The critically acclaimed Ninety-Two in the Shade (1973) made him a writer to follow, and led forthwith to Hollywood excess and crash. McGuane, in a deal typical of the era, came to direct the 1975 movie version of his book, which tanked in spite of its terrific cast, taking with it his first marriage, and inducing a brief second. The personal wreckage was the obvious subtext for 1978’s inward-dwelling Panama.
The opening lines of Ninety-Two in the Shade still rank among the best ever, a proposition that has remained news: “Nobody knows, from sea to shining sea, why we’re having all this trouble with our republic . . .”
We follow Thomas Skelton at the end of an LSD bender, one with criminal undertones, as he ditches several associates in a ratty Carolina motel, tosses away a pistol and, in very rough shape, thumbs his way down U.S. A1A to Key West, his hometown. It is late 1971.
“… I’ll get a six-pack and take my skiff out on the reef. If they say in the car that I am insane, I will take over the wheel.
“No one said he was insane; neither the hardware salesman, the United Parcel driver, nor the crawfisherman who drove the last leg into Key West suggested such a thing. When Skelton told the hardware salesman that the paint had just lifted off the whole car in a single piece, the hardware salesman agreed with him about how Detroit put things together. This was the epoch of uneasy alliances.”
Skelton ‘s family is characteristically eccentric, and morally lax. His grandfather is a quasi-criminal Key West big shot, his father a shell-shocked dreamer who mainly sits on his front porch dressed in a sheet, a lost cause to his long-suffering wife. The love interest is the independent Miranda, another ex-girlfriend a McGuane hero wants back. She’s seen first as Skelton walks into her house while she’s having sex with another former lover, which she describes ecstatically to Skelton afterwards; one more uneasy alliance.
Skelton lives in an abandoned airplane fuselage next to a skid row hotel and aims to be a fishing guide in territory already covered by two established pros, the amiable Faron Carter and the dangerous Nichol Dance (McGuane has a thing for names), a killer and two-time loser. A dockside practical joke the two men play on Skelton ends with him going rather overboard in retaliation. Threatened with death by Dance should he guide clients out of Key West, Skelton orders a fishing skiff for himself, paid for by his grandfather, and the story settles into a battle of wills between the two men that ends badly for both.
McGuane mostly foregoes Bushwhacked’s dense rhetorical sweeps for a philosophical narrative voice that slips between the world and the minds of his characters. Its satiric points rise naturally from the American-end-point setting of Key West itself, and a feeling that everything’s connected. The town is both recognizably real, the novel has an observant sense of place, and, with Clovis and Payne’s abandoned bat tower glimpsed early on, very much McGuane Land.
It is this great sense of place, of a strange and shabby town surrounded by aquatic plains of spectacular beauty, the stark distance between lamentable human action and the boundless grace of nature, that’s the novel’s enduring strength. McGuane is never better than when he explores the gap between the desired and the given.
Fishing the flats one night, Skelton and Miranda make their way through a dreamland of sea and stars, then “[…] they were close enough to home that they could see a Greyhound bus cross the Stock Island bridge […] Just beyond, the drive-in theater screen loomed among the trailers. Skelton stared: Appomattox Courthouse; Yankees and Rebels stately in the Key West sky. From the seaward vantage, it was the America you weep for. Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee knee-deep in mobile homes surrounded by the vacant sea.”
Ninety-two is the only McGuane novel that’s not (spoiler alert) a classic comedy. But a certain insouciance towards death is par the course in the old pirate town: “Nichol Dance was just a displaced bumpkin run out of his own unmortgaged bar for shooting a man in the horse business through the wishbone in not quite disputable self-defense; part of the world of American bad actors who, when the chips are down, go to Florida […]”
The good parts of Ninety-Two in the Shade are exceptionally good. Much is vividly seen: fighter jets as they come in low for landings at the air base, big fish lurking in mangrove shallows, a package store that has a picture of Tennessee Williams “holding a whitish bulldog and smiling without guile.” Secondary characters, especially Skelton’s parents, are worked into the action very confidently.
Skelton and Dance’s feud is so tautly played out that the novel’s rather more surreal episodes—a drill sergeant for winos, a former drum majorette prone to public nudism and compulsive shopping, geriatric sex on a trampoline—are baroque digressions, characteristic ornaments of a good period piece.
Where Ninety-two in the Shade is a chronicle of unwise acts, Panama, is a short, strangely moral depiction of the debris left in their wake. The sometimes ridiculous set pieces that layer McGuane’s first three novels are gone now, along with the narrating angel, replaced by a fractured first-person monologue of a guy who’s bottomed out, clear at the start:
“This is the first time I’ve worked without a net. I want to tell the truth. At the same time, I don’t want to start a feeding frenzy. You stick your neck out and you know what happens. It’s obvious.”
It’s not. The speaker is the mainly unreliable Chester Honeycutt Pomeroy, a notorious rock star now back in Key West, his hometown, for a nervous breakdown. The greater part of Panama deals with his faltering efforts to reenter everyday life and win back Catherine Clay, the lover who left him in New York City not long before. Besides some drama around his stepmother’s remarriage to a local political fixer who keeps police on Pomeroy’s tail; that’s about it for plot.
It is Ninety-Two re-mastered in a lower register: the hero’s return, his dysfunctional family, the ex, the brutal heavy, the anything-goes Key West setting. There are two uncles (one gay), a dead Mother (cancer) and brother (overdose), and a father whom Pomeroy insists—for something to do with the brother—was killed in a Boston transit accident. The father, no surprise, reappears mid-way through, an Ohio candy magnate desiring reconciliation.
Except for an early episode where a coked-up Pomeroy nails his left hand to Catherine’s front door (a chance to name-check Bushwhacked’s Dr. Proctor), his bad behavior is in a half-remembered, blackout past. Pomeroy’s bid for sanity depends to a great degree on a small sailboat he built as a boy and has returned to the water, tangible proof that he was once competent and sane. Even so, there are none of the broad, detailed views of the natural world that frame the earlier books. Pomeroy isn’t interested.
He describes short scenes, either lived or recalled. Catherine has a female lover, Marcelline, who soon has sex with Pomeroy; Pomeroy gets beaten up by the cops, and in turn beats up a visiting Hollywood agent who has sexually humiliated Marcelline; he plans a party, where everyone gathers at the end; Catherine hires a private detective to keep tabs on him and tell him later what he’s done. The report is often news. Pomeroy recalls finally that he and Catherine were married during a bender in Panama years before. She makes a drunken attempt to drown herself one night. She leaves again; blaming Pomeroy for something that’s not his fault. There’s much dialogue throughout.
For the stripped down candor of the tale, something remains unconvincing about Pomeroy. The title of his huge rock show, The Dog Ate The Part We Didn’t Like, sounds like something off-off Broadway, and the highlight of his performance—he crawls out an elephant’s ass in his underwear to sword fight a pitching machine—is more silly than unspeakable, certainly compared with, say, Alice Cooper’s act at the time, all fake blood, big snakes, and broken baby dolls,.
Put plainly, Pomeroy’s self-loathing outweighs his apparent sins, which may often be the case in life, but we never see why. What apparently sent him careening back home a national pariah, a detail revealed only at the end, was accidentally vomiting on New York’s mayor, as if anyone ca. 1977 would have cared so strongly for so long. Though the antic narration is finely wrought, Pomeroy’s bid for sanity is as selfish and headstrong as his initial descent into personal and artistic excess.
Whether McGuane intended this isn’t clear. Modern readers will note a casual homophobia, and an abiding white male presumption to the novel. Both were certainly contemporary cultural givens, and might appear here in a concomitant failure of creative awareness. Whatever the case, Pomeroy is McGuane’s least sympathetic hero.
Though short on psychological insight, the monologue does articulate a pained philosophy of experience: “I saw an old drunk fall in front of the laundromat at Elizabeth and Fleming. He cracked his head open and made a terrible pool of blood. Someone seemed to know he wouldn’t die of it. But I looked down through spinning air filled with frangipani and rock and roll and saw how quickly you are alone, how that can be shown to you in an instant.”
The trick, then, is not to look too widely at a horrible world: “Let us not try to see beyond these walls where we are taken up into the terrible stream. And then my heart could swoon from the smell of a cold cream jar left open.” Saul Bellow, whose great comic monologue novels carry heavier philosophic freight than this, nevertheless admired McGuane’s art. If Panama stumbles in its execution, it remains an abjectly honest work; a bold shot by a great writer, who’s said more than once that it’s the favorite of his novels.
To his abiding credit, McGuane has never rested on the narrative sure thing. Each of his novels after the first is a distinct advance in style and structure from the one before, while he revisits in varied ways the central notions that no lover is exactly true and no father especially kind. Given these raw deals, his characters do the best they can.