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Critical Essay by David Ingram
SOURCE: "Thomas McGuane: Nature, Environmentalism, and the American West," in Journal of American Studies, Vol. 29, No. 3, December, 1995, pp. 423-439.
In the following essay, Ingram discusses environmentalist themes in McGuane's fiction, stating "In McGuane's writings, nature gives an opportunity for his male protagonists to attempt to recover a sense of original purity and mastery beyond the compromises and power struggles of a competitive society."
The recent writings of Thomas McGuane show a particular interest in environmentalist concerns, examining the role played by inherited mythologies of the frontier in the ecology and politics of the contemporary American West. McGuane's explorations reveal complex and ambivalent responses to these subjects, in part liberal, radical and conservative.
This essay will discuss these issues in relation to contemporary American attitudes to nature. The basis for my approach will be to assume that conceptions of "nature" are socially constructed, and that "nature" and "culture" are separate but mutually interdependent. The relationship between human societies and the natural world will therefore be considered as an ongoing process in which the term "nature" must not be wholly subsumed under that of "culture." Environmental history is, as Donald Worster puts it, "a story of reciprocity and interaction rather than of culture replacing nature."1
Thomas McGuane's writings tend both to repeat and to question what may be called "traditional" or "Romantic" attitudes to nature. In particular, he combines both aesthetic and utilitarian perspectives: nature as a scene of spiritual restoration through the appreciation of beauty, and as the object of technological mastery and control. In practice, these two approaches are historically interrelated, in that they are both responses to, and constructions of, nature produced within an urban capitalist society. As Walter J. Ong has argued, a necessary precondition for Romantic attitudes to nature is a society that has confidence in its capacity to dominate nature, through the use of the very industrial technologies such attitudes ostensibly reject. In this way, even "when unacknowledged, the feeling of control over nature quiets old fears of being swallowed up by nature. Wordsworth's much advertised surrender to nature is to this extent a by-product of technology. Nature was under surveillance in his world."2
The interdependence of urban industrialism and non-utilitarian approaches to nature is a vital counter-argument to the anti-technological reflexes inherent in some ecological thought. Leo Marx's account of the "pastoral interlude" in American writing, for example, defines a "symbolic action which embodies values, attitudes, modes of thought and feeling alternative to those which characterize the dynamic, expansionary life-style of modern America"3 (my italics). Yet, as Perry Miller has shown, a sentimental mystique of nature was not simply an alternative to the dominant utilitarian ideology of nineteenth century America, but also its by-product and alibi, in a society in which the natural world came to be seen increasingly as a resource for industrial capitalist exploitation.4
Industrialism both produces Romantic attitudes to nature, and is also, from an ecological perspective, a long term threat to its continued healthy existence. Central in this context is the founding American myth of nature as Garden of Eden. In Under Western Skies, Donald Worster makes an important break from this inherited mythology: "we can live without the old fantasy of a pristine, inviolate, edenic wilderness—it was, after all, never adequate to the reality of the natural world."5 Yet the desire for a pristine nature, beyond the reach of human controls, persists in American culture, and is a central feature of Thomas McGuane's work, as his characters seek in nature an original purity in opposition to a corrupting modern civilization. Yet in McGuane's writings, the dangers of evasion implied by this need for pastoral retreat are acknowledged, as are the pleasures and seductions of urban life. As a result, he subjects the ongoing relationship between the human and natural world to skeptical inquiry and ironic disruptions.
The contemporary West is explored by McGuane as a site of capitalist competition and technological exploitation, dominated by agribusiness and the global flow of capital. Yet, within this context, the desire persists in his protagonists to experience nature as spiritually redemptive. McGuane's engagement with contemporary Montana also places preservationist politics within a recognition of both the dangers and the potentialities of myths inherited from the Old West.
In the essay "Some Notes on Montana" (1992), McGuane comments on the "competition for a prevailing idea of land use" between business interests, and those which favour recreation. The latter views, he argues, tend to be associated by "many ordinary Montanans" with "card-carrying interlopers" from outside the state.6 McGuane sides with the "conciliatory, ordinary people" against exploitative business interests, the "backyard ward heelers" who eventually "work their polarizing harm" in Congress. In political terms, the essay attacks not so much capitalism itself, as the "entrepreneurial capitalism" promoted by the Reagan government in the 1980s, the "corporate crime wave" which was responsible for the further degradation of the Western environment. The rise in forest clear-cutting, for example, was a defensive reaction by small landowners against the "hostile takeovers" and "junk-bond-fueled gyrations" of the large corporations.7 McGuane therefore argues from a liberal position against the abuses of a deregulated, laissez-faire form of capitalism.
McGuane's views on capitalism are elaborated further in his 1993 interview with Buzzworm: The Environmental Journal, in which he cautiously accepts capitalism as an apparently inevitable or unchangeable basis for American society: "I think capitalism is our system, and it's as viable a system as exists. I'm not opposed to that." However, this guarded response really shows his fundamental distrust of all systems—an attitude familiar in many American writers, reminiscent for example of the scepticism expressed in the "Cetology" chapter of Moby-Dick (1851). McGuane acknowledges that he does not "buy any of the existing systems entirely…."
Again, McGuane's criticism tends to be not of capitalism per se, but of its deregulated form, as people in America discover that "entrepreneurial capitalism is not the way to personal happiness" (my italics). Yet this ambivalence is compounded as he goes on to endorse the "growing green movement in this country," which, he predicts, may in future become the dominant party in American politics. Hence there is a need "to understand the limitedness of our global environment," and accordingly to place limits on economic growth: "I think we have to learn to do with less." Yet this questioning of the necessity for economic growth attacks the very foundation of capitalist economics, thereby revealing a central uncertainty within McGuane's environmentalist politics, coming as it does after his earlier, albeit reluctant, acceptance of capitalism as "our system."8
This ambivalent and uncertain attitude to capitalism is also evident in the novel Nothing But Blue Skies (1993). McGuane's comment in Buzzworm that "excessive materialism derives from spiritual desperation" is a useful gloss on his most recent novel. Through the figure of Frank Copenhaven, McGuane explores the seductive pleasures and power thrills of the capitalist business world, as a form of second nature:
In some ways, he loved money; he certainly loved the sedative effects of pursuing it, and if that was all money did for him at this point, it had much to be said for it. The year he tried to escape into bird-watching, into all the intricacies of spring warblers and the company of gentle people, he had been forced to conclude that nothing got him out of bed with quite the smooth surge of power—as the Chrysler ads used to say—like the pursuit of the almighty dollar.9
When visiting McDonald's, Frank is seduced by the gratifications and securities offered by conformist passivity: "Splendid to take what you are given." But this moment of acceptance and complicity is typically ironised, and quickly descends into a memory of childhood dependency and sentimental nostalgia:
He smiled, felt the happiness go over the top of him. A long-ago day came back.
"It's 1964 and news of Dad's hole in one has just shot through town."10
Frank's gradual disaffiliation from contemporary American society, his "coming adrift,"11 leads him to question the invasive penetration of the economic and materialist as the ruling criteria of value in capitalist society. As he says to his insurance man and fellow ex-hippy, Dick Hoiness, "'You deal in values the world accepts or you'd be out of business. I pay you to insure things that are starting to have no value for me.'"12 Yet there are no possibilities for radical social change in the novel. Frank's only option is to try to rejoin the society in which he has lost confidence. So he finds himself spying on homes in the suburbs:
Frank wanted to be here among the families, to watch them in their ordinariness, that most elusive of qualities. To simply carry on and ignore all that is unthinkable seemed to require a special gift; and, in the end, the world belonged to those who never thought about nuclear holocaust, the collapse of the biosphere or even their own perfectly predictable deaths. Carry on! Who made the playoffs? Let's eat! Let's eat something!13
In his desperation, Frank clings to an idealised image of American suburban life. These populist sentiments are the decadent nostalgia and bad faith of an outsider who has lost such securities, and quickly become an endorsement of the apolitical complacency and evasions of a consumer society.
Despite McGuane's endorsement of the Green movement in the Buzzworm interview, his writings show little belief in the possibilities of radical political change in American society. A way out of this impasse seems to be his recognition of the need for more local and piecemeal political action, in the pragmatic and compromised world of pressure group politics. In particular, McGuane has concentrated on preservationist issues concerning "wild river" protection. His 1993 Audubon piece, "The Spell of Wild Rivers," is accordingly a defense of federal government intervention in environmental affairs, in particular the National Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, against pressures from those interests supporting states' rights. McGuane calls for a wider sense of community than that offered by the damaging ideology of individualism: "A rising tide of Americans are banding together and in the face of sloganeering about individual rights and antigovernmental posturing are concluding that wild rivers are indeed something we hold as a community."14 McGuane's views are again informed by traditional attitudes to nature, a sense of the natural landscape as a source of patriotic pride, and as spiritually restorative: "I suppose many American families have had such days on our Wild and Scenic Rivers, days that are restorative not just to our beleagured constitutions but to our idealism as a people, to our capacity to dream." He is careful not to idealise his descriptions of nature, and recognises the political issues that inform them:
The North Fork of the Flathead is an imperfect place. There are plenty of human disturbances preserved as part of the status quo, and plenty of new building. But these have been mitigated by a protective corridor and easements purchased by the federal government.15
Yet he adds: "A river like this ought to go through South-Central Los Angeles." This nostalgic element, claiming the purifications of nature as a solution to complex urban problems, is reminiscent of Thomas Jefferson via Frank Capra, and is evidence of the sentimentality that is a significant factor in McGuane's attachment to nature.
More serious as an argument is his defense of the role of the federal government in environmental matters, an issue explored in Nothing to be Desired through the figure of Lane Lawlor, leader of the organization "We, Montana." Lawlor represents McGuane's satirical attack on the vested interests of states' righters, and the disastrous impact that their politics have on the Western environment. Through this comic grotesque, McGuane shows how the perpetuation of the destructive myths of the Old West is a serious constraint on contemporary possibilities. Lawlor's organization exhibits the right-wing, white supremacist assumptions of the central myths of the American West: "Frank especially remembered their Western Family archetypes: the John Waync male and his bellicose, gun-toting woman, their cold-eyed, towheaded children."16
The policies of "We, Montana" are based on the use of big technology to master nature through acts of aggressive conquest. In the novel, the damming of a river to prevent water from leaving the state leads to the drying up of the stream where Frank and his daughter go fishing. This has consequences for Frank which go beyond simple utilitarian considerations: "Frank thought that it was pretty unlucky to go fishing and find the stream had been stolen, particularly when you needed the stream for more than just fishing."17 The manipulation of nature for short-term economic and political purposes is shown to have destroyed other possible usages, in particular those responding to people's emotional and spiritual needs.
Lawlor rehabilitates frontier iconographies as political alibis for the actions of his pressure group, particularly those regarding the control of water: "'There's a way of looking at this world and this country and, more importantly, this state that begins with saddle leather and distance, unsolved distance. And water.'"18 Frank recognises Lawlor's regional chauvinism and his politics of resentment as a selective interpretation of the history of the West: "The tone of the West had been set by the failure of the homesteads, not by the heroic cattle drives. The tone was in its bitter politics." Yet Frank himself also views the West through old myths, as the landscape inspires in him familiar thoughts of the West as a new start, and as future potentiality:
There was something in its altitude and dryness and distances that he couldn't have lived without; and it was a good time to remember that. When he was walking in the hills and could see sundown begin about forty miles away, or smell running water in the bottom of a sagebrush ravine, or watch the harriers cup themselves to the curve of earth and slash through clouds of meadowlarks, he felt that thankfulness. It was always a starting point. He went to the mirror and watched himself say, "I love it here."19
Typically, however, the optimism of this traditional response to the Western landscape is given an ironic undertone in the final sentence here. The comically exaggerated self-consciousness, even narcissism, of Frank's final gesture suggests the complacency and over-confidence involved in putting too much faith in any mythic perceptions of the West.
Yet these fantasies are shown to persist out of an emotional need for an imaginary scene of unspoiled potentiality, a need which McGuane both respects and shows as limited and anachronistic. In Something to be Desired (1984), Lucien indulges in a reverie for a mythic Old West, as he rides along with W. T. Austinberry, the comically stereotypical cowboy: "How Lucien loved this vaguely ersatz air of the old days! Or better yet, that the frontier lingered in the draws where Indian spirits were as smoky and redolent as the pollen exhalations of the forest!" But there can be little place for such nostalgic fantasy in the modern West, as McGuane's bathos immediately shows: "They rode on and crossed a creek where W. T. Austinberry said that he had poured Clorox to kill a couple of hundred pounds of trout for his freezer."20 The Western cowboy complacently takes for granted the abundance and permanence of nature, and his permissive actions damage the natural environment. Austinberry's actions raise the central issue of technology, an area explored by McGuane particularly in terms of the relationship between the mastery and control of nature and traditional forms of masculinity.
Ecological thought has provided a critique of some of the central assumptions of the modern scientific project, revealing it as founded upon a destructive and exploitative attitude to nature. As land came to be treated as a commodity to be bought and sold within a capitalist market economy, so, as Michel Serres puts it, "Our fundamental relationship with objects is summed up by war and property."21 Serres calls for a new "natural contract" in which "our relationship to things would no longer involve mastery and possession, but an admiring stewardship, reciprocity, contemplation, and respect…."22 This notion of a benign form of stewardship is an attempt to rehabilitate Christianity from its complicity, based on Genesis 1:28, in granting human beings permission for the destructive domination of nature.23 The notion of human stewardship still clearly falls within an anthropocentric view of nature, seeking more benign forms of technological control. Serres' position may in this way be differentiated from the shift towards "biocentrism" evident in "deep ecological" thought, whereby human beings lose their assumed centrality in the world, and are relocated back into evolutionary nature as a species equal but not superior to other forms of life.24 This attitude translates in its most extreme form into policies that seek to proscribe all utilitarian and even anthropocentric approaches to nature—even though this position is difficult to sustain on both political and epistemological grounds, in that any human action towards nature is inevitably anthropocentric, by definition.
McGuane's writings mostly favour an anthropocentric and interventionist approach to environmentalist issues, though he does recognise an emotional need for areas of nature left as far as possible beyond the reach of human technological mediation, or so-called "development." In a "beautifully farmed field … it was wonderful to see the sage-covered remains of buttes and old wild prairie that wouldn't submit to plowing."25 Moreover, the very presence of human beings is seen on occasions to be inevitably destructive. In Argentina on a fishing trip, looking across "superb distances" to the Andes, "it was hard to avoid the feeling that the greatest thing man can do for the land is to stay off it."26
Yet this concern for wilderness preservation largely avoids the trap of a sentimental reflex against technology per se. There is, however, a clear antipathy towards big technology in McGuane's work. But as a rancher, hunter and fisherman, nature exists for careful human use, and the issue of domination and control is not a simplistic either-or choice. Indeed, McGuane's environmentalist interests show a pragmatic acknowledgment of the need to come to terms with human technological interventions.
In Nothing But Blue Skies, Frank experiences a thrill of omnipotence, when stealing an articulated log skidder: "This grand machine made its own road, and with their seats high above the destruction, they could feel some of the detached power that intoxicates those at war with the earth."27 The scene recalls the sense of moral and political detachment experienced by the tractor driver, the "machine man," in The Grapes of Wrath (1939), who, as an extension of the destructive machine, is "contemptuous of the land and of himself."28 McGuane's speculations on technology here give an insight into the seductiveness of big, destructive technologies, as he distances himself at this point from war as the central paradigm for technological controls, and from the dangers that arise from spurious notions of objectivity and detachment.
This attitude may be placed with evidence in McGuane's work of a more benign use of technology. His interest in angling may, in this context, be seen as an endorsement of a form of control of nature using small technology. Some modern techniques, especially the use of plastics and chemicals, are ruled out as excessive: "the latest teched-out fly-fishing, with its whirring split shot, 7X leaders, and transitional subaqueous life-forms imitated in experimental carpet fibers."29 Indeed, McGuane extends such concerns to the technology of writing itself, in his rejection of large-scale epic structures, what he calls the "accretional monument-building" of much post-World War II American writing: "If you're building fishing rods or shotguns or yachts, the standard is lightness that is as much as possible commensurate with strength…."30
Yet a martial paradigm remains as the basis for angling, as for most sporting activities: mastery and control of the object are still the main end, only the tactical means have changed. In Nothing But Blue Skies, Frank recalls the fishing techniques of his grandfather, a successful businessman, whose approach was "too direct": "He tried to overpower trout, go straight at them. It was one of the many areas where fishing and life are not at all alike—or at least fishing and business."31 So the paradigm of technology as war is not transcended here; rather, in a reformist move, the secret of successful dominance is shown to be an understanding of, and respect for, the object of control.
Indeed, the sense of war and competitive struggle as fundamental aspects of the human condition is central to McGuane. Ultimately, his work may be seen to assert an essentialist notion of human nature in an American society given over to brutal Darwinistic competitiveness, also viewed largely as a state of nature, unconditional and inevitable. As Frank Copenhaver comes to understand about the business world: "Any creature that goes in a straight line is an invitation to predators."32 This sense of life as competitive struggle extends to sexual relationships. Hence Frank's admiration for his friend June: "She was a fighter. Unlike most women he knew, she wasn't astonished to find that life was a fight."33
McGuane's characters tend to be driven by their essential natures, their bodies' instinctual and sexual drives, as forces which they can control only ineffectively and temporarily. In the affair between Frank and Lucy, the latter finally manages to control these impulses. But for Frank, however, sexual desire is an overpowering appetite, involuntary and uncontrollable. McGuane's explorations of male sexuality here suggest many of the elements identified by Lynn Segal as falling within traditional discourses on masculinity, evident for example in the pseudo-science of "sexology" in the mid-nineteenth century.34
In this context, the issue of moral responsibility is crucial. As a tumescent Frank puts it: "'The worst hanging judge in the world doesn't penalize folks for that which is involuntary.'"35 Yet the need for a sense of moral responsibility, as a means of reasserting control over nature, is a key preoccupation in McGuane's writings. Significantly, arguments about an involuntary human nature are used by his characters as alibis for their own moral failings. In Something to be Desired, when Lucien's father roughly throws out of his motel room a woman he has casually picked up, he then telephones his wife in the hope of being invited back home. In an attempt to justify his behaviour to his son, he draws on an argument from nature, by recalling the family pets he once bought for Lucien, "so you could learn about animals, about how we are all animals."36 Yet this assertion of our animal nature is motivated by a desire to absolve himself of moral responsibility for his actions. Similarly, Lucien refers to his own act of desertion as an involuntary, behaviouristic reflex: "… why can't I stop myself? I have the soul of a lab rat."37 But Skinnerian behaviourism gives way to a Christian schema of guilt and punishment explored by the narrator independently of the character's point-of-view: "In any event, the process of stain had begun; he would not have known what to call it as it sank deeper inside him, nor been able to assess the turbulence and damage that was to come; but it was certainly shame."38
In McGuane's writings, nature becomes a scene of therapeutic healing in response to this ongoing sense of inadequacy, failure and guilt associated with living in a society based on competitive aggression. In particular, both the male protagonists of his novels and the autobiographical narrators of his fishing stories seek a renewed sense of mastery and control through contact with nature. Nature provides a scene in which competitive struggle, in sexual relationships and in the business world, may be momentarily transcended. In the following passage, Frank and his friend Phil Page attempt to leave behind the pressures of their failed marriages in a search for "purity" in nature. McGuane lightly satirises the sort of populist mysticism associated with angling in, for example, Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It (1976), yet the emotional needs that inform such attitudes are also understood and respected. Phil Page is thinking about his cheating wife:
"I guess that if we didn't have trout fishing, there'd be nothing you could really call pure in our lives at all."
Frank stared at the road ahead, filling with joy at this inane but life-restoring thought. "I do like to feel one pull," he said.
"Yes!" Phil shouted and pounded the dashboard.
"Yes!" shouted Frank, and they both pounded happily on the dashboard.
"Trout!" The volume knob fell off the radio. Phil dove down to look for it, muttering "Fuckin' douche bag" as he searched.39
Within McGuane's comedy, the attainment of a feeling of masculine mastery and control is transient, and characteristically falls prey to bathetic deflation.
As Jane Tompkins argues, the nurturing role attributed to the pastoral landscape by men in Western fictions suggests more than a simple substitute for the company of women. Rather, the Western landscape exists as a scene which displaces "heterosexual sexuality, the nuclear family, and a struggle for status among peers," in that the man "who leaves home and fireside and turns to the wilderness does so in search of something other than what they have to offer."40 What McGuane's male characters seek tends to be a renewed sense of control over their lives through a meditative or epiphanic experience. Blood sports such as angling and hunting apparently become means of attaining a sense of the sacramental, and consequently a moment of healing. McGuane explores this aspect most fully in his essay on hunting, "The Heart of the Game."
The essay attempts to justify hunting in the light of the accompanying sense of "remorse" that "spins out almost before anything" with the act of killing the prey. McGuane's defense is initially a moral one: by involving himself directly in the killing of the animal, the hunter lacks the hypocrisy of those who buy meat in supermarkets and, as a result, try to avoid responsibility for the ugly realities of meat production in the industrial slaughterhouse. But McGuane adds: "and anyway, as Sitting Bull said, when the buffalo are gone, we will hunt mice, for we are hunters and we want our freedom."41 There is an elision here from the "we" probably intended by Sitting Bull (the Sioux tribe), to a less specific "we" ("we" could refer to "men," "Americans," or "the human race"). Whatever the referent, the appeal is to an essential and therefore permanent human nature as an ultimate guarantor of permission ("we are hunters"). McGuane here is close to the arguments of sociobiologists, who posit what Stephen Jay Gould calls an "innate nature of human violence" which serves to confirm conservative, patriarchal power relationships by attempting "to fob off the responsibility for war and violence upon our presumably carnivorous ancestors."42 Darwinism is invoked for the sense of boundless permission it can afford.
"The Heart of the Game" is ultimately concerned with metaphysics, as McGuane argues that hunting is socially necessary in that it provides a confrontation with death that reveals the sacramental in life. As he puts it, "A world in which a sacramental portion of food can be taken in an old way—hunting, fishing, farming, and gathering—has as much to do with societal sanity as a day's work for a day's pay."43 McGuane describes a meal with his son, where they eat the antelope killed at the start of the story. As he informs his son of the death of his paternal grandfather, the meal provides the opportunity for a small act of communion, an attempt to heal the pain both of mortality, and of the awkward separation and repressed competitiveness between father and son. Human blood ties are strengthened through the spilling of the sacramental blood of the animal. McGuane's love of hunting in this way places him as a direct inheritor of those basic myths of the American West that assert the regenerative power of violence. As Richard Slotkin puts it, the violent male in Western mythology is "the lover of the spirit of the wilderness, and his acts of love and sacred affirmation are acts of violence against that spirit and her avatars."44
George Bataille's cross-cultural study of violence and the sacred analyses deep-seated psychological motivations for such desires for sacrifice. Death, ultimately unmasterable, is mastered symbolically and vicariously in violent sacrifice, where anxieties are projected onto the victim. Bataille locates such psychic needs in the biological separateness of human individuals, an unconditional effect of sexual reproduction. As such, their origin is asserted to be not in a socially constructed masculinity, but in an unchangeable human nature:
We are discontinuous beings, individuals who perish in isolation in the midst of an incomprehensible adventure, but we yearn for our lost continuity. We find the state of affairs that binds us to our random and ephemeral individuality hard to bear. Along with our tormenting desire that evanescent things should last, there stands our obsession with a primal continuity linking us with everything that is.45
Ritual sacrifice allows for an ecstatic return to continuity, and a sense of control over the passing of time. In "The Heart of the Game," hunting the deer provides not only a practical source of food, but also, in its irrational aspect, enacts a confrontation with mortality, recognised as our natural inheritance:
As I took that step, I knew he was running. He wasn't in the browse at all, but angling into invisibility at the rock wall, racing straight into the elevation, bounding toward zero gravity, taking his longest arc into the bullet and the finality and terror of all you have made of the world, the finality you know that you share even with your babies with their inherited and ambiguous definition, the finality that any minute now you will meet as well.46
These "hand-to-mouth metaphysics"47 show McGuane at his most conservative, nostalgic for traditional codes of masculinity as renewing a sense of potency and will through rituals of violent death. McGuane places his decision to hunt the deer within a speculation on the state of his life, within eighteen months of the deaths of his father and sister, and of the collapse of his marriage. In the context of these complex personal traumas, hunting takes on motivations associated with an embattled need for renewal, restoring a sense of mastery and control over his life:
I didn't want to read and I didn't want to write or acknowledge the phone with its tendrils into the zombie enclaves. I didn't want the New Rugged; I wanted the Old Rugged and a pot to piss in. Otherwise, it's deteriorata, with mice undermining the wiring in my frame house, sparks jumping in the insulation, the dog turning queer, and a horned owl staring at the baby through the nursery window.48
The individual non-conformist stands out against the homogeneous mass ("the zombie enclaves"), and heterosexual machismo ("the dog turning queer") renews itself against the "deteriorata" of entropic collapse. Nature thus becomes a scene in which a declining sense of masculine power is restored. In McGuane, the masterful male hero often tends to persist as an absurd, self-deluding fantasy, rendered comic and absurd. Yet the figure is shown to have appeal as well as limitations.
This traditional sense of masculinity as involving the need for a man to prove himself in tests of prowess is a central preoccupation of McGuane's fishing stories for the men's magazine Esquire. "The Bonefish in the Other Room" begins characteristically with a sense of failure, as the narrator, with typically comic self-deprecation, describes his "wounded male vanity …" as he gets his fishing line caught in his back pocket. The mood of the writing then darkens: "I was in that state of mind perhaps not peculiar to angling when things seem to be in a steep curve of deterioration, and I had a fatal sense that I was not at the end of it."
McGuane recovers from this loss of control through a lesson in humility learned from his experience with the natural world. He watches the moon, appearing "as a fixed portion of the universe, while the clouds and weather of planet Earth poured over its face." The moon becomes a sign of the absolute, of a sublime element beyond human time. This decentring of the ego affords psychic relief: "Weather is one of the things that goes on without you, and after a certain amount of living, it is bracing to contemplate the many items not dependent upon you for their existence even if too many thinking reeds stalk the prairie." The final clause here suggests Malthusian-Darwinian fears of overpopulation as a threat to individual survival. Yet there is an overall feeling of confidence and mastery restored through contact with nature. Granted "a healthier view of loose fly line, the message from the moon, and my place in the universe …," he successfully catches the bonefish, which "came to my fly at the end of a long cast. And I landed him."49
"The Bonefish in the Other Room" refers to the "ceremony of angling holding our minds on all the proper things."50 In this respect, McGuane's deepest speculations move beyond the immediately political, into contemplations of a universalised human condition. In particular, mortality and loss exist in his work as inevitable facts to be confronted. The transience of human time, and experiences of separation, particularly those associated with generational differences, are healed by being set against the larger, cosmic times and "eternal" continuities of nature. Angling trips are often of interest to McGuane in the way that they provide opportunities for bridging generational differences:
I think of the father and son, a month of fishing together; that is, day and night, life together at what might have been inflexible ages, a struggle for active intimacy late in life in a country where we were all strangers. The rest of us, men with fathers, living or dead, caught this out of the corners of our eyes.51
Having confronted the inevitabilities of time, mortality and separateness, the trip becomes "a permanent resource to this surviving son."52 This need to overcome Oedipal rivalries is a key theme in McGuane's fiction. In Nothing But Blue Skies, Frank decides to become a businessman through a desire to prove himself to his father. This need for reconciliation between the generations extends to his daughter, Hollie, and significantly, it is an angling trip that provides the opportunity for their reunion.53
Many of McGuane's typical responses to nature are brought together in "West Boulder Spring," a meditation on Thoreau published in aid of the Walden Woods Project. The essay locates human beings within a landscape that is gradually revealed as a site of predatory struggles for survival. An identification is made between human beings and animals: "Over the sere landscape, the creatures are chasing each other just like the children at the local junior high." As the essay begins to darken in tone, there is a growing recognition of disease, death and an aggressive competition for food: calves sick with pneumonia, a yearling buck eaten by coyotes. The piece ends with the narrator confronting death as an unconditional fact of nature:
The face of creation takes in everything with a level stare. When I was younger, these manifestations of life's fury were comfortably free of premonition. Now there is a gravity that dignifies the hatchlings, the one-day lives of insects, the terrible slaughterhouse journey of livestock, and, of course, ourselves and our double handful of borrowed minerals.
Human beings are placed within a totalising metaphysic ("creation," "life's fury"), as part of an unconditional fate to which all living things are subject. However, this recognition tends to conflate what is natural ("the hatchlings, the one day lives of insects"), with what is more obviously culturally determined ("the terrible slaughterhouse journey of livestock"). This turning of culture into nature makes what is historical, and therefore potentially changeable, appear as inevitable and fixed. This is the basis of the pessimism that tends to permeate McGuane's writings, a sense of inevitabilities that cannot be transcended. "West Boulder Spring" ends accordingly with a search for spiritual consolation:
The obsessive business Thoreau complained of is rooted in fear; fear of mortality, and then of pain and loss and separation. Only in the observation of nature can we recover that view of eternity that consoled our forebears. The remains of the young buck dead at the spring are sounded in the cliffs above our house in the calls of the young coyotes, testing the future with their brand new voices, under the stars of outer space.54
A sublime nature puts human beings in their place, cautious and humble before "eternity," and acknowledging a limit to ambitions. The passage ends with paradoxes of life-in-death, as the young coyotes embody springtime renewal amid death and decay. Time ("the future") and space ("the stars of outer space"), small and large, local and cosmic, the transient and the eternal, the living and the inert: the reconciliation of opposites in the final paragraph in McGuane at his most overtly transcendentalist, an epiphany that is significantly not undermined by irony. Similarly, in Something to be Desired, Lucien discovers, riding on horseback in Montana, that, "he could look out through the tall wild prairie grasses on the stream bank and start to lose his sense of irony."55
Typically in McGuane's novels, however, such attempts to find consolation and emotional escape in nature are treated more sceptically, as temporary evasions of moral responsibility. In Nothing But Blue Skies, after a night of drunkenness, involving the theft and destruction of a truck, Frank retreats to the countryside with his fishing gear. He looks up into the Big Sky of Montana:
This seemed to him to be a grand and wholly acceptable arcade where his various sins were simply booths to be revisited with amusement … He joyously felt himself idling, an unreflective mood in which water was water, sky was sky, breeze was breeze. He knew it couldn't last.56
In a novel that also debunks psychiatry,57 there is here a rejection of notions of therapeutic healing that appear to simplify the complexities of human experience in order to give false consolation. As Frank puts it, "the messages of my formative years all came from Little Richard, who has never soiled himself with an inner journey."58
Nothing But Blue Skies explores what McGuane calls a "plateau of spiritual bankruptcy"59 without finding any easy solutions. Nature is seen as the site of possible renewal, but such a view is not allowed to become a system of belief beyond an ongoing spirit of skeptical inquiry. In McGuane's writings, nature gives an opportunity for his male protagonists to attempt to recover a sense of original purity and mastery beyond the compromises and power struggles of a competitive society. In the Buzzworm interview, McGuane described the "personal desperation" of his characters, and how their "escape from that emotional dead end is always seen in the natural world."60 As such, his work confirms the recurrent element in American nature writing as identified by Peter Fritzell: "that deep, original desire to escape history or civilization, to return to Eden and become again an unthinking, unsinning part of nature…."61 Yet irony is a constantly disruptive force in McGuane's fiction, not allowing such moments of transcendence to evade radical questioning and doubt.
1. Donald Worster, Under Western Skies (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 251.
2. Walter J. Ong, Rhetoric, Romance and Technology (London: Cornell University Press, 1971), 280.
3. Leo Marx, "Ecology and American Ideals," in Environment and Americans, ed. Roderick Nash (London: Holt, Richart and Winston, 1972), 100.
4. Perry Miller, Errand into the Wilderness (Cambridge: Belknap Press, Harvard University, 1956), ch. 9, "Nature and the National Ego."
5. Donald Worster, op. cit., 255.
6. Thomas McGuane, "Some Notes on Montana," Architectural Digest (June 1992), 45.
7. Ibid., 36.
8. "Thomas McGuane Speaks," interview with Deborah Houy, Buzzworm: THE Environmental Journal, Jan/Feb. 1993, 32-4.
9. McGuane, Nothing But Blue Skies (London: Minerva, 1993), 131.
10. Ibid., 48.
11. Ibid., 95.
12. Ibid., 95.
13. Ibid., 123.
14. McGuane, "The Spell of Wild Rivers," Audubon, Nov.-Dec. 1993, 63.
15. Ibid., 64.
16. McGuane, Nothing But Blue Skies, 206.
17. Ibid., 281.
18. Ibid., 208.
19. Ibid., 246.
20. McGuane, Something to be Desired (New York, Vintage Contemporaries, 1985), 37-8.
21. Michel Serres, "The Natural Contract," translated by Felicia McCarren Critical Inquiry (Autumn 1992), 6.
22. Ibid., II.
23. Lynn White, "The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis," Science, 155, (1967).
24. Kirkpatrick Sale, The Green Revolution (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993), 27.
25. McGuane, Something to be Desired, 54.
26. McGuane, "The Brown Trout at the Bottom of the World," Esquire, June 1992, 64.
27. McGuane, Nothing But Blue Skies, 230.
28. John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath (1939; London: Mandarin, 1990), 133.
29. McGuane, "The F-word," Esquire, Dec. 1991, 81.
30. In. "Tom McGuane," Mark Harris, Publishers Weekly, 29 Sept. 1989, 50.
31. McGuane, Nothing But Blue Skies, 149.
32. Ibid., 273.
33. Ibid., 243.
34. Lynn Segal, Slow Motion: Changing Masculinities, Changing Men (London: Virago, 1990), 208ff.
35. McGuane, Nothing But Blue Skies, 223.
36. McGuane, Something to be Desired, 15.
37. Ibid., 28.
38. Ibid., 29.
39. McGuane, Nothing But Blue Skies, 82-3.
40. Jane Tompkins, West of Everything (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 82.
41. McGuane, "The Heart of the Game," in An Outside Chance, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence, 1990), 230-1.
42. Stephen Jay Gould, Ever Since Darwin (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991), 238-9.
43. McGuane, An Outside Chance, 234.
44. Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1973), 22.
45. Georges Bataille, Eroticism (London: Boyars, 1987), 15.
46. McGuane, An Outside Chance, 239.
47. Ibid., 233.
48. Ibid., 236.
49. McGuane, "The Bonefish in the Other Room," Esquire, Feb. 1992, 56.
50. Ibid., 55.
51. McGuane, "Stupendous Vulgarities, Delicate Subjects." Esquire, Oct. 1991, 74.
52. Ibid., 76.
53. McGuane, Nothing But Blue Skies, 151ff.
54. McGuane, "West Boulder Spring," in Heaven Is Under Our Feet, ed. Don Henley and Dave Marsh, (New York: Berkley Books, 1992), 52.
55. McGuane, Something to be Desired, 36.
56. McGuane, Nothing But Blue Skies, 234.
57. Ibid., 127ff.
58. Ibid., 324.
59. "Thomas McGuane Speaks," Buzzworm, 32.
60. Ibid., 32.
61. Peter Frizell, Nature Writing and America (Ames: Iowa State University, 1990), 6.
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