If the subjects of Thomas McGuane’s stories weren’t invariably mundane and if his style wasn’t so clipped it might be possible to mistake him for a horror writer. Like the horror writers, his is a fatalistic sensibility, interested in nothing so much as spinning story after story about characters plodding towards a fate their narrow vision keeps them from noticing as the inevitable result of their unconsidered actions.
Indeed, in “Canyon Ferry”, a man’s resentful preoccupation with his wife’s devilish new lover nearly results in the death of his son and ultimately in the dissolution of their relationship. The unnamed narrator of “The Casserole” is too distracted by a litany of complaints against his wife to notice the “very sad story” he and his wife are heading for: “across (the) river” lies not her parent’s ranch but a divorce so glaringly obvious to the reader one is apt to feel scorn or derision before pity or sympathy. That is assuming, of course, the reader’s own sense of judgment is not stifled by the pain of recognition.
Despite his apparent wrath and disdain, McGuane is no Old Testament God hovering at a safe remove, eager to catch his pitiful creation in a moment of weakness brought about by design flaws he himself instilled. If at times he might be mistaken for such, it is only because he has a wicked sense of humor that veers heavily towards the sadistic.
A pair of trigger-happy cops plant a gun on an escaped mental patient they’ve killed because “that way… it’s a senseless tragedy” and a paragraph later McGuane reveals with what seems an undisguised relish that the backpack the officers thought might contain a gun was full only of “pebbles, a dead bird, and a book on teaching yourself to dance.” It’s a sour moment, a slice of dark humor so soggy with cynicism and sophomoric wit that it should be pickled, and yet McGuane redeems it. Not with any of the obvious tactics: he does not use the moment to somehow save or enlighten the cops by confronting them with their hypocrisy and stupidity. He does not deign to use this haunting encounter to hoist stark revelation on Pat and Juanita Riley, the yuppie couple that accidentally perpetuated the event or even – most mercifully of all – make of them a moral example to the reader.
The consequences are instead more subtle, accruing by inches and degrees, some nameless “dread that seem(s) to seep out of nowhere” and pollutes the tenor of the story as surely as the minds of its protagonists until finally, the victim’s mother comes to confront the hapless yuppies about their part in her son’s death. This is not representative of McGuane’s judgment, however, but rather it serves as the emissary of some unknowable element that remains mysterious even to McGuane.
What should be a humorous sequence, this diminutive old woman taunting her son’s killers with the assurance “time will tell [how big a mistake you’ve made] if it hasn’t already,” plays instead as something laden with cosmic menace. The story is no less funny for this change in tone, but the humor now comes from someplace deeper, garnering laughs not by cheaply positioning the reader as superior to the characters, but by confronting them with a scenario so subtly disquieting that somehow only laughter seems appropriate. This kind of misdirection might, at first blush, recall the way David Lynch squeezes laughs by contrasting the banal with that which is at once both surreal and somehow familiar, but McGuane never strays into the realms of the supernatural. Nor, like the late Barry Hannah to whom this collection is dedicated, does he find his humor in multiplying absurdities or in the obscene and grotesque.
He is not even much like the Thomas McGuane who wrote Gallatin Canyon, a man whose humor was softer, warmer, and whose style was easier. Here it is spare; it is restraint that lends this work its inscrutable aura, not excess. Descriptive passages are rare, adjectives and adverbs both employed conservatively as though McGuane suspects them of criminal potential; nature scenes that might devolve into flowery and piss-poor Keats impersonations in the hands of a more indulgent author read in McGuane’s hand almost like grocery lists, a mere tally of facts and details. His plotting is clipped, his characters’ interiors guarded.
Years and characters both pass away in the space between a period and the sentence to follow, often so subtly it may take a page to notice the shift. Those people who do remain seem to do so of their own will, as remote as they are from everyone and everything, passing beyond even the reach of McGuane. It’s as if he’s observing them more than controlling them. But then even the men and women who tell their own stories do so from such an emotional remove that they, like their author, seem to have only ever been observers to and never participants in their own tales. Motivations remain hidden or are marked off as inexplicable, psychologies remain under lock and key and more often than not, stories end with so little incident it seems understatement to label them “anti-climaxes”.
In the hands of a less exacting author, these idiosyncrasies would yield an obscurantist mess. Yet McGuane’s work is not infallible. “Grandma and Me” is a mush; the ties that bind the alcoholic protagonist and his blind grandmother remain tenuous at best, his motivations for most of his actions border on the asinine and the description is so spotty that the story seems to take place in a white space only occasionally, conveniently filled by landmarks. Meanwhile, the too-obvious symbol of the drowned man the narrator sees while on a picnic burdens the tale with a moral weight that plays entirely at odds to its tone and style.
McGuane has a hard time mixing the obvious and the obscure, a difficulty he runs into once more when he tries unsuccessfully to reverse his poles. “River Camp” should by all rights be the funniest if not most poignant story in the collection. When bears invade the titular camp and devour the corpse of one Marvin “Eldorado” Hewlitt – a gargantuan fishing guide who throws his catches back for fear of karmic retribution, who treats his background like a multiple choice quiz while carrying around a variety of ID cards to maintain the aura of mystery – the scenario demands a language equal to its absurdity. If he was never so funny in life as his author must have thought, Hewlitt could still be redeemed in death with a properly bombastic description. All McGuane needs to do is release some of his restraints.
Instead, he demurs. He uses the panic brought about by this incident to force resentful friends Jack and Tony to an end that might have sounded poetic in theory, but which reads falsely. The situation in “River Camp”, like the characters, is too neat, too easily explained, prefaced as it is by obvious foreshadowing (the arch and repeated quips about the characters’ limited life spans and the narrator’s early notice that the characters’ wives will “never see their husbands again” feel like notes leftover from an outline, a scaffolding left up long after construction on the building has completed) and closed by a passage more striking than befits their situation.
At the mouth of the canyon was a standing wave. Somehow the river ran under it, but the wave itself remained erect. A kind of light could be seen around it. Tony thought it had the quality of authority, like the checkpoint of a restricted area; Jack took it for yet another part of the blizzard of things that could never be explained and that pointlessly exhausted all human inquiry.
It’s a beautiful description and a poignant one – a perfect moment when the vagaries of McGuane’s style, his decision to render the waterfall unknowable by masking it behind soft descriptors such as “somehow”, and “a kind”, develops the narrative and theme both– but so elevates Jack and Tony beyond the bickering ninnies they’re shown to be that it renders the situation not poignant, not absurd, only baffling. A choice was made early on that the reader should know these characters from the inside out; for McGuane to suddenly gift them with a rich interiority heretofore unhinted at could easily be mistaken for manipulation.
When he grants his characters the distance they desire, though – the very same distance they demand from their lovers, their friends, even their children – McGuane’s peculiarities as a humorist and wordsmith transform the banal content into something shocking. While “Hubcaps” begins and ends as the story of a young man coming to grips with his parents’ disintegrating marriage and the end of his own childhood (an overcooked topic if ever there was one) the slow build and the jab of an ending make the story seem wholly new. And wholly horrifying. The moment it’s revealed that Owen hides pet turtles within his lunchbox, it’s clear that these obvious symbols are doomed as certainly as Owen’s own innocence; it’s the sudden and brutal flippancy with which they end that lends them weight.
The safety patrol (officer) undid the catch… pried out the false bottom and looked in. ‘You know the rules,’ he said. He gingerly lifted the turtles out of the box, leaned toward an open window, and threw them out. Owen jumped up to see them burst on the pavement.
There’s no great build up to this moment – McGuane’s jerky style would not allow for that. It is not lingered upon – there is no need; the single word “burst” paints a picture of the shattered turtles more vivid than any gory description might – and the the consequences take up a single sentence: “(Owen) fell back into his seat and pulled his coat over his head.” There are lasting implications for Owen but the story glosses over them with perfect nonchalance. “Life went on as though nothing had happened, and nothing really had happened,” observes the writer; “Owen continued to attend football games, not to watch but to wander the darkened parking lot, building his hubcap collection. As time went on, it wasn’t only the games: any public event would do.”
Few endings afford relief. Few afford even resolution. Rare are displays of affection between characters. Distance is the theme of Crow Fair, after all, with character after character desperate to span the gap between themselves and others, but perpetually unable. It seems as if the very things – loneliness, anger, fear, self-loathing — that spur them on to make these connections are the same things that make connection impossible. Everyone seems trapped in their own hell and doomed to bear out the damning consequences but not, again, because McGuane is some kind of sadist. Far from it. Flat those his affect is and unsparing though his prose might be, his sympathies mark these pages in ways undeniable.
There is a wistful yearning at the end of “Praerie Girl”, for example, the one moment in which a character finds the happy ending that eludes all others. With “A Long View to the West” McGuane even affords his hero a rare moment of catharsis and himself a rare moment of sentimentality. “Soon (Clay’s father) would be gone and the stories with him. Maybe (Clay)’d be able to remember them during hard time or, really, whenever he needed them. Maybe he needed them now,” he notes, and it’s hard not to imagine that McGuane himself is right there with Clay, wondering through the graveyard and observing the wreckage of lives squandered or stolen, assured only of the power of stories that are even now not long for this world.
There’s no joy here, no delight in Clay’s too-late-revelation that the father he found so frustrating and the stories he found so tedious are an essential part of the life he has led. There’s only a futile sympathy that would offer solace, if it only could. McGuane, like his characters, exists at a distance he cannot close no matter how much he yearns; his style and all its attendant strengths make it impossible for him to offer these men and women the solace of the easy ending. In those instances he stretches the narrative to moralize he falters; when he opens his characters too fully he betrays them. When he keeps his distance, though, and trusts to himself as a chronicler and not a shaper he restores humor, terror and dignity to modern alienation. It’s difficult work, imperfect and riddled with all sizes of frustrations, but it’s potent in a way that little of modern fiction is.