Thomas McGuane’s (born December 11, 1939) fictional universe is a “man’s world.” His protagonists appear to do whatever they do for sport and to escape ordinary reality. They seek a world where they can, without restraint, be whomever they choose to be. This goal puts them at odds with prevailing social customs and middle-class ideas of morality and achievement. However, most of these quests end in frustration. Finding themselves quite apart from the normal flow of society, McGuane’s protagonists must try all the harder to fulfill themselves. As a result, they easily become self-absorbed and further jeopardize whatever ties they might once have had to conventional life. Usually such a tie is to a woman, who, for her own self-fulfillment, must forsake the protagonist in the end.
The Sporting Club
McGuane’s first novel, The Sporting Club, concerns the adventures of well-to-do Michiganders who maintain the exclusive and grand Centennial Club, to which they repair to fish and hunt. The story is limited to the point of view of James Quinn, who has emerged from a protracted adolescence to take over the family’s auto-parts factory. Quinn’s friend Vernor Stanton, however, refuses to take up the ordinary life and spends his time in the pursuit of games. Stanton is bored by the elitist pretensions of the club members and the pride they take in its noble heritage, and he is frustrated with Quinn for outgrowing the need for freedom and frolic. Stanton engineers a series of adventures that ultimately result in the collapse of the club. The noble pretensions of the membership are exploded when Stanton unearths a photograph that shows their ancestors engaged in an outlandish “sexual circus at full progress.” After the current members see the photograph, the pretense upon which they build their lives collapses, and they run rampant with, as Quinn puts it, “moral dubiousness,” emulating the sexual circus of the forefathers. In this way, McGuane manages to show that the established social order is rotten at its foundation, and the only sensible thing to do is to quest for a life in which one determines one’s own values. Exposing this truth does nothing, however, for the survival of the McGuane protagonists. By the end of the aftermath occasioned by the photograph, Stanton is living under the surveillance of mental health workers at what is left of the club, and Quinn returns to the family business. They are no longer freewheeling protagonists able to make “the world tense.”
The Bushwhacked Piano
In The Bushwhacked Piano, Nicholas Payne is more fortunate. Even though his father has the finest law practice in Detroit, Payne has no intention of doing anything respectable. He wants no part of his father’s “declining snivelization” and “the pismire futilities of moguls.” Payne does, however, want Ann Fitzgerald, an aspiring poet and photographer, whom he sees as almost a goddess. Ann’s parents do not approve of Payne; appearances, hard work, and achievement mean everything to them. They take Ann from Michigan to their ranch in Montana, but Payne follows because movement appeals to him, as well as the romantic idea of an almost unworldly mate. Ann is also sleeping with an establishment boyfriend whom she will not give up completely because she knows that someday she will have to behave like a conventional adult. For now, however, camera in hand, she joins Payne on an expedition to Florida to sell fraudulent bat towers. She goes more for the experience than simply to be with Payne, and ultimately she leaves him.
Payne not only loses Ann but also is arrested for selling a useless bat tower. Nevertheless, breaking the law is not as serious as breaking conventions. Payne goes free when he agrees to reenact his trial for a television program. Life, McGuane seems to say, is indeed a bewildering proposition, and the only way to emerge victorious is to determine one’s own goals and always keep them uppermost in mind. Indeed, neither the loss of Ann nor the scrape with the law has a lasting effect on Payne. Those who live the conventional life will never understand Payne, but he will not relent. The novel ends with Payne proclaiming, “I am at large,” which is the same language used to describe an outlaw on the loose. Payne’s movement outside conventional spheres will not stop. He is, for better or for worse, in charge of his own life, the artist of his own destiny.
Ninety-two in the Shade
In Ninety-two in the Shade, Thomas Skelton attempts to engineer his own fate when he tries to become a fishing guide with his own skiff off Key West. Nicole Dance, an established guide and murderer, forbids him to do so. When Dance plays a joke on Skelton, the young man burns Dance’s skiff in retaliation. Dance vows to kill Skelton if he guides, but Skelton guides anyway, his fulfillment depending on it. The situation here is much the same as in earlier McGuane fiction. The protagonist must assert himself against the normal flow of life. With his life in danger, Skelton ought not to guide, but he knows that “when what you ought to do [has] become less than a kind of absentee ballot you [are] always in danger of lending yourself to the deadly farce that surrounds us.” Couched in McGuane’s wisecracking language is the idea that the deadly farce occurs when one absents oneself from vital energies and capitulates to the flow of ordinary life. Skelton must stand up for the self he desires to be and attempt the life he wants.
Ninety-two in the Shade could be considered McGuane’s most optimistic book if it were not for the fact that when Skelton becomes a fishing guide, Dance kills him. Until the very end, Tom seems to have everything going his way. He has determined his own values and his own fulfillment. He has the support of family and a fulfilling love relationship with Miranda, a local schoolteacher. However, he also has his feud with Nicole Dance, who shoots him “through the heart.” In spite of the protagonist’s courage to pursue goals and the conviction to stand up to adversity, life does not come equipped with happy endings.
McGuane’s fourth novel, Panama, more clearly points up the frustrations of the unconventional life. Protagonist Chester Hunnicutt (Chet) Pomeroy has become an overnight sensation, performing all the loathsome acts of the imagination for audiences. He has, for example, crawled out of the anus of a frozen elephant and fought a duel in his underwear with a baseball batting practice machine. He also vomited on the mayor of New York, which ended his career. As the novel opens, Chet has returned to Key West, Florida, in the hope of putting his life back together by reconciling with his wife, Catherine, who stuck by him until he became a national disgrace.
Even though she still loves him, Catherine wants nothing to do with him because his behavior is still bizarre. At one point, he nails his hand to her door; at another, he snorts cocaine off the sidewalk. He has lost his memory and given up all hope. Catherine accepts the fact that she cannot change him and leaves him for good to the emptiness he calls home. Chet combats this emptiness by evoking a transcendent presence of Jesse James, who has the power to inhabit his loved ones. He prefers that James inhabit his father, a snack-foods tycoon. A typical McGuane protagonist, Chet is bothered by the security and ordinariness of his background. He insists that his father is dead and claims James as an ancestor, suggesting that Chester Hunnicutt Pomeroy really wishes he were someone else. Because the glories of the Old West are not available to him, he creates the myth of himself through bizarre behavior. Chet’s outlaw myth leads him nowhere. At the novel’s conclusion, his father forces a reconciliation. Chet knows that all his father wants is for Chet to say hello, to acknowledge him as his father. To admit that his father lives will be to agree that Jesse James is dead. Chet will have to accept himself for who he is: the son of an obscure packager of snack foods, the perfect symbol of conventional modern life.
Nobody’s Angel is McGuane’s first novel to be set entirely in the West, a West that McGuane characterizes as “wrecked.” In Deadrock, Montana, farmers abuse the land, cowboys are lazy, and American Indians are nowhere to be found. Returning to this damaged world is thirty-six-year-old Patrick Fitzpatrick. Patrick is as unconventional as earlier McGuane protagonists. As a whiskey addict and a professional soldier, he has been a tank captain in the Army for all of his adult life, most recently in Europe, and the only place he feels secure is inside his womblike tank. Suffering from “sadness for no reason,” he has returned to the family ranch, which he will someday own. He feels stranded on the ranch because becoming a property owner is not a meaningful achievement for him. Patrick appears to be in the worst shape of any McGuane protagonist. He is not only without goals but also without any sense of himself, conventional or unconventional.
The effect of the wrecked West is seen in the character of Patrick’s grandfather. The old man has been a cowboy all of his life, has known real gunfighters, and has run the ranch like an old-time outfit. The West has changed, however, and everything from sonic booms to valleys cluttered with yard lights has got the old man down. The only things he feels good about are Australia, which he has heard is open country like Montana once was, and Western films. His one fit of excitement comes when he signs on to be an extra in a Western about to be filmed locally. Even that, however, is accompanied by overtones of sadness and ends in disappointment. The film is Hondo’s Last Move, evocative of a legendary but nonexistent West popularized by actor John Wayne and writer Louis L’Amour. Even then, the “last move” refers to the dying of the West and perhaps Hondo himself. To make matters worse, the project folds when the distributor forsakes Westerns for science fiction. In the end, the old man moves into town and takes an apartment from which he can see the local film theater, which plays old Westerns, and a little bar in which hangs the head of the best elk he ever shot. The open West has been reduced to one-bedroom apartments, yesterday’s films, and mounted animals, which serve only to remind him of a glorious past.
In Nobody’s Angel, McGuane continued to work the theme of unfulfilled love. Patrick hopes to bring purpose into his life by means of a love affair with Claire Burnett. Claire and her husband, Tio, are second-generation nouveau-riche Oklahomans summering in Montana. Not a genuine stockman like Patrick’s grandfather, Tio is mainly interested in oil, cattle futures, row crops, and running horses. Because Tio’s main hobby is pretending to be a good old boy, Patrick sees him as a personification of the substanceless modern West.
Patrick believes that “Claire could change it all” and wishes theirs could be a sentimental love story, the kind found in romantic books. Claire, however, will not become a part of Patrick’s dream. Her commitment to Tio goes beyond Patrick’s understanding. Her family provided the money to support their lifestyle. Tio’s people are poor Okies, and this discrepancy in their backgrounds has driven him to incurable delusions of grandeur, to the point that Claire has promised that she will not abandon him. Even though she tells Patrick that she loves him, she never stops loving Tio, and Patrick’s dream of a storybook romance crumbles. Even when Tio dies, Claire will not marry Patrick. She makes has sex with him one last time, explaining that love is “nothing you can do anything with.” Patrick is not able to cope with Claire’s pragmatic attitude about love and their relationship. She gives him a picture of herself, but he does not keep it with him, because it reminds him of the frustrations of his romantic hopes.
In the end, Patrick survives, but not in the West. When he was a teenager, Patrick invented an imaginary girlfriend named Marion Easterly. Even though he was eventually discovered, the fantasy has remained a part of his consciousness. He had hoped that Claire would replace Marion, but a living woman will never become the woman of a man’s imagination, and when Claire dismisses him, Patrick rejoins the Army and finds fulfillment in his fantasy. Word filters back that he is now a blackout drinker in Madrid and that he is living with a woman named Marion Easterly. Patrick Fitzpatrick remains “at large”—in the sense that his heavy drinking and fantasy lover keep him outside the normal boundaries of life—but without the hope and energy of Nicholas Payne. The McGuane protagonist seemingly must find a way to accommodate himself, at least partially, to the concerns of conventional life.
Something to Be Desired
In Something to Be Desired, the McGuane protagonist combines both unconventional and conventional goals. Lucien Taylor grows tired of normality and destroys his perfectly fine marriage with self-absorbed erratic behavior. After his single life becomes empty, he, like Chet, tries to put it back together again by reuniting with his former wife, Suzanne, and their son, James. Lucien’s plight is not entirely the result of his disenchantment with conformity; he is victimized by his capricious lust.
Lucien’s sense of sexual discipline was broken in college by Emily, who slept with him on their first meeting. Emily was engaged to a medical student and continued to sleep with both young men at the same time. Ultimately, she is abused by her surgeon husband and becomes totally self-absorbed and manipulating. Emily is a woman as selfish as Claire, and she continues her self-absorbed actions throughout the novel, exploiting everyone, including Lucien. Lucien, however, married Suzanne, who “took the position that this was a decent world for an honest player.” This basic decency is what Lucien eventually comes to value, but when he hears that Emily is free of her marriage, he thinks nothing of destroying his own and returning to Montana in quest of her. Lucien is troubled by the lack of romance in his life, an element that Suzanne and James cannot provide. Suzanne sums up Emily by calling her the queen of the whores, an assertion which is borne out when, on her penultimate appearance in the novel, she is seen sleeping naked next to her purse.
Such a portrayal of women who do not measure up to male ideals or fantasies is not rare in McGuane’s fiction: Ann (The Bushwhacked Piano) and Claire (Nobody’s Angel) are two other disappointing women. Lucien has dreamed of Emily since their first encounter. Not until he finally decides that he wants nothing more to do with her does she tell him that she regards his concern for her an infantile gesture, a thing she holds in contempt. Indeed, she does not even think enough of him to shoot him, which she has done to her husband and, by this time, another lover. Lucien, however, like Nicholas Payne in The Bushwhacked Piano, does not lose momentum. He pulls off a crackpot piece of venture capitalism. Through a series of exchanges, he comes to own Emily’s ranch and develops its sulfur spring into a thriving health spa. In short, he becomes rich. In this way Lucien remains unconventional, at the same time—new for a McGuane protagonist—gaining that which is admired by conventional society. Even though McGuane still maneuvers his protagonist through some outlandish paces because of his peripatetic penis, McGuane at the same time imbues Lucien with a sense of purpose higher than sport or making the world tense. Lucien, once his new wealth requires him to bring a semblance of order into his life, begins to want to think of himself as a working man with a family to support.
When Suzanne and James come for a visit, Lucien first attempts to reach James from the security of his own masculine interests. He takes him out to band some hawks. He baits the trap with a live pigeon. When the hawk strikes the pigeon, James screams and crawls off. As Lucien bands the hawk, James shakes. While Lucien admires the hawk, James’s natural inclination is to cradle the dead pigeon; he manifests a sense of compassion that his father lacks. The violent world of nature is awful to him. Lucien actually finds himself liking the fact that his son is timid and made of more delicate and sensitive stuff than his father. McGuane is, nevertheless, not becoming sentimental. Later, when he understands how nature works, James explains that killing pigeons is how hawks have to live, but the fact remains that James was terrified by the killing. His explanation is not so much an emulation of his father’s more hard-boiled ways as it is an acceptance of them as his father’s ways. James is actually reaching toward a relationship with his father.
What is important here is that Lucien is attempting to reestablish his family because such a reestablishment would be better for all of them, not only for him alone. Lucien’s is one of the few nonselfish acts committed by a McGuane protagonist. He would like not to see the child become a “hostage to oblivion.” He wonders how he could leave him unguarded. His reward is that James begins not to fear his father.
Winning back Suzanne, however, is not as easy. She is too skeptical to welcome the sadder-but-wiser protagonist back into her arms. She tells him the truth about himself: He is self-absorbed, insensitive to those who love him, and not worth the effort of reconciliation. Lucien is going to have to recognize her as an independent and worthy person. Before the novel’s end, she works through her sense of him as a totally selfish person, but even though she admits to loving Lucien, she is not sure if she is ready to trust him. As she and James drive away from the ranch, she does not look back. She is charting her own course, which may or may not include Lucien.
What is important here is that the McGuane protagonist has progressed through the state of self-absorption with adventure and sport. He has begun to understand that what matters about life is not being “at large” to commit glorious exploits, but being a part of a larger whole that includes the other people in the world. The full life is not lived in furious battle with the forces of conventionality but in achieving deep and lasting relationships with human beings.
Keep the Change
In Keep the Change, Joe Starling, Jr., an artist of limited talent, must come to understand this same truth. Chained by the ghost of his father, an overachiever who ultimately dies a failure, the young Starling’s life is empty for no reason. He is not satisfied with his various successes as an artist, craftsperson, cowboy, or lover, because everything pales in comparison with his expectations for himself. He ricochets among Montana, Florida, and New York City without fully realizing that individual human meaning is something created rather than found.
Two of McGuane’s most fully realized female characters offer Starling the possibility of a fully actualized life, but he is too full of himself to seize the opportunity. Ellen Overstreet, a rancher’s daughter as wholesome as the new frontier, presents him with the vulnerability of awkward young love. The dynamic Cuban Astrid, whom Starling loves for her outlandishness, sticks by him until he is hopelessly lost in pointlessness. After she leaves him, Starling seems to be beginning to understand that sharing the routine concerns of daily life with Astrid may be the source of true meaning.
Keep the Change signals a new development in McGuane’s perception of male competition. Games are no longer seen as means to make sport of conventionality. Joe Starling’s rival here is Billy Kelton, an honest and simple, if luckless, cowboy, who marries Ellen Overstreet. Kelton is Starling’s physical superior and twice humiliates him with beatings. Violence here is real, not comic, and because it is real, it is bewildering and confusing. Kelton understands that his physical prowess is dehumanizing, and, in facing the struggles of life with his wife and daughter, he shows Starling the importance of a deeper, if simpler, emotional life.
The key to the novel is found in a painting of Montana mountains, the white hills, which hangs in a decaying mansion that once belonged to the most powerful man in the territory. The work itself is indistinguishable: “It had seemed an unblemished canvas until the perplexity of shadows across its surface was seen to be part of the painting.” Ultimately, Starling discovers that the shadows are in fact its only real feature. There is no painting; there never has been a painting. However, “somewhere in the abyss something shone.” That “something” is the meaning Starling seeks. He is the one who determined meaning in the painting and, by extension, in the hills themselves. He must then act to create a life for himself; he must determine his own meaning.
Nothing but Blue Skies
Nothing but Blue Skies, McGuane’s eighth novel, continues the progression from self-absorption to maturity begun in Something to Be Desired and Keep the Change. Perhaps his most expansive work, it follows the breakdown and recovery of Frank Copenhaver after his separation from his wife, Gracie. An ex-hippie turned real estate speculator and cattle trader, Frank gradually loses control of his minor empire of rental properties, turning his scattered attention instead to awkward sexual encounters with the local travel agent and episodes of drunken selfdestructiveness. Only a visit by his college-age daughter, Holly, can keep him momentarily in balance. Her brief stay includes an idyllic afternoon of fishing that buoys Frank’s spirits, only to intensify the sense of loneliness and loss when she leaves again.
It is Holly who manages to suspend Frank’s downward spin by creating a family crisis. She summons her estranged parents to Missoula to meet her new “boyfriend,” Lane Lawlor, a gray-haired archconservative campaigning to “impound” the streams and rivers in Montana in order to retain the water that flows out of the state. Frank and Gracie meet to discuss the situation, but at each of the meetings Frank makes a fool of himself by failing to control his temper. The couple is finally brought together at a political rally where Lane Lawlor is the speaker and Holly his piano-playing assistant. The rally ends when Gracie, like Frank, secretly in attendance, attacks Lane and Frank joins the melee. In the aftermath they realize that Holly has engineered their reunion by pretending to fall for Lane. Frank also understands that Gracie has “nearly ruined” him in an attempt to break down his self-involvement and force him to see her and himself in a new way.
Nothing but Blue Skies is clearly McGuane’s most optimistic and fully developed novel. In Frank Copenhaver, McGuane gives his typical protagonist a complexity and vulnerability that many of his earlier versions lack. Perhaps more notable, the novel’s women show a richness of characterization often missing from earlier works. Gracie, Holly, and Lucy Dyer, the travel agent, all transcend easy generalities and stand firmly as independent, fully formed characters.
The core of Nothing but Blue Skies is Frank’s bewilderment in the face of losing Gracie and his rehabilitation through public humiliation. McGuane’s strength in creating such a character lies in his understanding of how life can be renewed through the comic downfall of the protagonist, his fall into public degradation a necessary starting point for rebuilding the life he has sold away through the soulshrinking manipulations of business. Stripped of all attainments and pride, Frank Copenhaver can only start over. After all, as Gracie tells him, “There’s nothing crazier than picking up exactly where you left off.”
In Thomas McGuane’s modern West, life is what you make it, nothing more, nothing less. His protagonists must work to fulfill hopes not by going against the grain of the conventional life, but by partaking of its normal flow and by building useful foundations on its undramatic but real joys.
Long fiction :The Sporting Club, 1969; The Bushwhacked Piano, 1971; Ninetytwo in the Shade, 1973; Panama, 1978; Nobody’s Angel, 1982; Something to Be Desired, 1984; Keep the Change, 1989; Nothing but Blue Skies, 1992; The Cadence of Grass, 2002.
Short fiction: To Skin a Cat, 1986; Gallatin Canyon, 2006.
Screenplays: Rancho DeLuxe, 1973; Ninety-two in the Shade, 1975 (adaptation of his novel); The Missouri Breaks, 1975; Tom Horn, 1980 (with Bud Shrake).
Nonfiction: An Outside Chance: Essays on Sport, 1980; Some Horses, 1999; The Longest Silence: A Life in Fishing, 1999.
Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008./