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Critical Essay by James I. McClintock
SOURCE: "'Unextended Selves' and 'Unformed Visions': Roman Catholicism in Thomas McGuane's Novels," in Renascence, Vol. IL, No. 2, Winter, 1997, pp. 139-52.
In the following essay, McClintock discusses Roman Catholic spirituality themes in McGuane's novels, particularly in Panama and Nobody's Angel.
Thomas McGuane's novels, short stories, essays, and screen plays place him among the best contemporary American writers. Reviewers have uniformly commented on his constant and redeeming wit in portraying suffering, alienated male protagonists, even though academic critics have neglected his work. For twenty-five years Thomas McGuane has employed a masterful range of language and comic imagination to write about these protagonists, adrift in a vulgar contemporary American culture, who are limited, furthermore, by their own "unformed visions" and "unextended selves."
Almost without exception, however, critics and reviewers have failed to notice that McGuane's topics, themes, and language are frequently, if not obviously, religious, and that McGuane belongs in the company of such writers as Walker Percy. Reynolds Price, and most notably Flannery O'Connor, as well as writers such as Jack Kerouac, J. P. Donleavy, and Robert Stone, all of whom in varying degrees explore fictional worlds shaped by their experiences with Roman Catholicism, whether broadly cultural or specifically liturgical. In a recently published interview with McGuane, Gregory L. Morris observes concerning the nearly invisible role of religion in McGuane's work that "You seem … to dismiss religion as a source of belief and affirmation in your work; religion is, in fact, scarcely visible in your fiction." McGuane responds that "I do have an inchoate pining for religion … In fact, I am very comfortable considering myself an Irish Catholic, implying, as it does to me, a superimposition of the life of Christ upon earth-worshipping pantheism." Despite the seemingly heretical yoking of Catholicism and pantheism and, in addition, recognizing McGuane's playfulness, this declaration should be taken seriously.1 McGuane is like J. P. Donleavy and Jack Kerouac who, Paul Giles writes, "are by no means Catholic writers in any orthodox sense, but [who] emerged out of a culture of Catholicism that has continued to influence the shape and direction of their work" (394).
From the first of his novels, The Sporting Club (1969), to his most recent and seventh novel, Nothing But Blue Skies (1992), McGuane has turned repeatedly to generally Christian and, often, specifically Roman Catholic topics, themes, and language. In The Sporting Club, for instance, the novel's central, dangerous rivalry begins with the protagonist's statement that there is no God; and the novel's epigraph from Aristophanes indicates the central truth that if there is no God, then "Whirl is king." More peripherally, in the serio-comic Nothing But Blue Skies, the protagonist's hope throughout the novel is for the return of grace (his wife Gracie). The McGuane novels most preoccupied with religious subjects are, however, Panama (1978) and Nobody's Angel (1982), arguably his best, although reviewers savaged Panama and Nobody's Angel received a mixed reception. In these two novels McGuane elaborately explores religious themes, particularly the idea that his protagonists are in states of crisis that they, in some measure, have brought upon themselves by clinging to self-serving delusions while, at the same time, suffering from the victimization of living in a "fallen" and crushing American culture which offers them no succor. Chester Hunnicutt Pomeroy in Panama and Patrick Fitzgerald in Nobody's Angel, who are near spiritual death, are, by the novels' ends, minimally alive. While McGuane's protagonists have at best a limited grasp of its efficacy, the only alternative McGuane offers to spiritual extinction is a Christian existence. We can understand their desperate lives and marginally improved final states within the novels' persistent evocations of a Christian context larger than their own tormented lives and their culture's de-sacralized icons, whether in these instances rock-and-roll celebrities or Montana cowboys.
Chet Pomeroy is a burned-out rock-and-roll superstar notorious for outrageous stage performances. The poles of Pomeroy's spiritual life are that he is "discouraged as to finding a hot lead on the Altogether"; but, nonetheless, "like every other child of the century deluded enough to keep his head out of the noose" and not commit suicide, he "expect(s) God's Mercy in the end" (86). He is closer to the negative than the positive, believing that "anybody's refusal to commit suicide is a little fey" (86). He only wishes what we all wish for, he says, "a little light to live by. A start somewhere" (85). By the novel's end, he seems to have gotten his little light, a start, and a little of God's mercy. But his journey is excruciating.
Messianically, Chet Pomeroy had taken to the stage during the Nixon era of the Watergate coverup and subversion of the Constitution. At one point he says being called to the stage was like Ulysses S. Grant being summoned to save the nation: "It was an instance of a village crank being called by his Republic" (45). More frequently and persistently, he identifies himself with another historical figure, the outlaw folk hero Jesse James. Often, though, Pomeroy cannot distinguish Jesse James from Jesus Christ. That confusion allows Pomeroy to mythologize himself as an outlaw in a corrupted society which would victimize him, and as an actor in a historical drama of mythic and universal dimensions. Pomeroy believes he is actually related to Jesse James, and the last in a family in which everyone from Revolutionary times to the present has been outside the mainstream of American history as a fighter against the Philistines, whom Pomeroy often refers to as "shitsuckers" (85). His stage crusade had been to awaken the country from its collective nightmare. "Your only shot," he explains, "is to tell everyone, to blow the whistle on the nightmare. It will work for a while; no one knows how long. The worse the dream, the more demonstrative you must become. I took to the stage" (89).
Pomeroy's most successful show was called The Dog Ate the Part We Didn't Like and his antics included appearing on stage dressed "in Revolutionary War throwaways and a top hat, much like an Iroquois going to Washington to ask the Great White Father to stop eating his babies…. I was a … strangely articulate shrieking misfit and I would go too damn far" (11, 14). Going too far in McGuane's overtly political novel includes as part of Pomeroy's act crawling "out of the ass of a frozen elephant" (the Republican party) and fighting a "duel in my underwear with a baseball batting practice machine" (the national pastime) (18). Pomeroy remarks that "it took me a little while to get the bugs out; and after that, I was lethal" (45).
The colloquial meaning of "lethal" signifies that his successes as a savior called upon by the endangered Republic coexist with the word's literal meaning of "deadly." Pomeroy becomes complicit in cultural destruction. Falling apart, near total collapse, he is advised by a friend that he "was having a destructive effect on all and sundry out in America … It is time … to go home; the dog is eating everything" (168). In Panama, as in other McGuane novels, the dog symbolizes malign forces which are the antithesis of human desires and hopes, a symbol evocative of the beast slouching toward Bethlehem. For McGuane, dogs are reminders of meaningless death as a prelude to purgatorial or, even, eternal suffering. The dog symbolizes McGuane's worst fears about contemporary America and lost possibilities for cultural and personal redemption. In an interview, he explicitly connects the beast with an American nightmare: "The America you see in public is a monster who crawls up to the door in the middle of the night and must be driven back to the end of the driveway" (McCaffery 206). Dogs haunt and menace the worlds of other McGuane novels. In Nobody's Angel, for instance, an enraged dog threatens a drunk Patrick Fitzgerald who thinks, "I must be close to death…. I always knew death would be a slobbering animal" (71). The "everything" the dog is eating in Pomeroy's friend's warning is not only the nation but Pomeroy himself. Pomeroy is deranged, and the cultural nightmare is enthralling.
Just as in McGuane's view, Pomeroy's life, the nation's, and a larger spiritual malaise are intertwined, so are they in Pomeroy's often deranged thoughts and emotions. He confuses his father, whom he insists is dead but who isn't, with Jesse James, whom he insists is alive but who isn't, and both—as well as himself—with Jesus. These confusions occur when he is in crisis; and he is in virtually continual crisis.
Jesse James is invoked regularly in Pomeroy's fantasies—Jesse will take revenge against those who threaten Pomeroy. Pomeroy often, though, thinks about Jesse James as Christians think of Jesus and God. When, for example, a detective hired by Pomeroy's beloved Catherine to help restore Pomeroy's memory tells him that Jesse James was shot by Bob Ford and threatens to hit Pomeroy in exasperation at Chet's refusal to accept the truth, Pomeroy prays. "Jesse, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (151). Shortly after, he reassures himself that he has certain truths to live by; for instance, "I know that Jesse robbed and killed and that he was lonely. I know that he was left behind, left for dead. But I know he rose again from the dead" (157-58). Defending himself from Catherine's exasperated sarcasm about his "rotten little Catholic heart" (and distancing her loving efforts to help him), he shouts, "There is no rotten little Catholic heart. There is only the Sacred Heart of Jesus and I have seen it shine in a Missouri tunic," which, of course, Jesse James had worn (167).
There are moments when Pomeroy sounds like Flannery O'Connor's Misfit in "A Good Man is Hard to Find," in which the Good Man of the title is Jesus even if others are mistaken as the good man, including the Misfit himself, who is actually a patricide. Pomeroy, in fact, more than once calls himself a "misfit" (14, 16, 28). Others describe him as "the most sleazed-out man in America," and he is the subject of a Paramount movie entitled "Chronicles of a Depraved Pervert" (94, 106). And, of course, he insists that his living father is dead. In another passage that could also be from a Flannery O'Connor story because of its comically grotesque surface and underlying Catholic dogmas, Pomeroy's father confronts his son: "I'm … running down my birdbrain, notorious son who refuses to admit I exist." In response to Chet's question "Why?" he answers simply, "Because it's all I want!" (101). A parallel with the Christian invitation to acknowledge a loving and forgiving Heavenly Father could not be more plain.
But Pomeroy defiantly denies his father's existence again. He rejects as necromancy, moreover, Catherine's efforts to help him acknowledge his father. Instead, he runs wildly down the street and tries unsuccessfully to buy a parrot "which said Jesus, Mary, Joseph at the trilling of a bell, the sign of a monstrance or a cracker" (143). Then, pursued by photographers, he "recited my Act of Contrition, genuflecting with enough sincerity that my knee could be heard against the sidewalk a hundred feet away" (144). These desperate, bizarre, and burlesque versions of Roman Catholic rituals do not help him even if they signal his best hope. He should know the futility of the insanely parodic and burlesque, not only because of his stage act but because of his earlier parody of the Crucifixion. In one of the novel's most horrendous, even if most comic, scenes, Pomeroy conflates Jesse James, Jesus, and himself by using a hammer to crucify himself by, as he says, "nail(ing) my left hand to the door with Jesse's Colt" (24). He had lost the distinctions between savior and outlaw, between victim and victimizer, and had egocentrically located them all in himself.
The most crucial distinction Pomeroy must make, before he can move toward any kind of reconstructed selfhood that expresses differently how he is a son of God, is the distinction between life and death. This is no simple matter of deciding whether to live or die—he has already stated that "anybody's refusal to commit suicide is a little fey." Not only is he confused about whether Jesse James and his father are dead or alive, he is dying spiritually and wonders whether, in fact, he himself is alive or dead.
Catherine, in a dream-like scene following her warning to Pomeroy that his confusions about his father and Jesse James and his denial of his father could have disastrous consequences, asks who the old man was who went by in a boat (Pomeroy's father), then dives into dark waters, perhaps to drown. Pomeroy searches frantically, finds her lying in the mud where an old man is moving off after arranging her hair "like a sunburst." Her face pale, Catherine stares into Chet's face and then asks the crucial question, "Are we alive?" (114). He doesn't really know, of course. For him "the living are skeletons in livery anyway," and he had speculated that he, himself, "could be dead; could be the kind of corpse that is sometimes described as 'fresh'" (107, 8). Earlier, in fact, he had said simply, "I was dead" (4).
He does, finally, have some crucial insights into the realities of death and life. At his brother Jim's funeral, looking into the coffin and into his brother's face, Chet has a "watershed" insight: "That's him all right and he's dead" (46). Much later he has a "conversation" with his dead brother who asks him to say aloud that their father is alive. Chet says it, chokingly, and learns from Jim the essential, if distressing, truth that "I was among the living" (127). And, finally, he meets with and acknowledges his father. Marginally sane, barely alive, abandoned by Catherine, Chet starts one last time to mistake his father who has come to visit him for Jesse James ("At twelve o'clock Jesse came, a cane in the scabbard, his years at sea, the difficulties with the smokey subways of Boston behind him"). His father says quietly, "You know who I am … Can't you say hello?" The novel, then, ends with a passage resonant with religious implications: Chet saying "the word" [father], at great risk, an act of faith equivalent to his childhood "dive into the swimming pool from the highest board on moonless nights, without looking to see if there was water in the pool … I felt the same blind arc through darkness when I spoke to my father" (175).
That act may not be much of a beginning for Chet, but it is a beginning nevertheless. He is still emotionally unstable, but he is alive physically and spiritually; he is beyond nihilism.2 The novel's religious overtones indicate that he is healing. By the novel's conclusion, he has abandoned his earlier messianic wish "to ache in the literal heart and chest for all of us who had lost ourselves as parents lose children, to the horizon which is finally only overtaken in remorse and in death" for the dawning knowledge that he has been a lost child himself and, thereby, eligible to receive God's mercy (43). He has, at last, untangled the savior from the one who needs salvation, savior from sinner. With childlike faith and the acknowledgement of his father, the most fundamental of religious responses, he begins to find himself.
Nobody's Angel, McGuane's most overtly religious novel, does not end as positively for its protagonist, Patrick Fitzgerald, as even Chet Pomeroy's highly qualified success in Panama. Still, Nobody's Angel is not nihilistic because its themes, more sharply than Panama's, outline a spiritual alternative, which the protagonist Patrick Fitzgerald may or may not grasp but which the implied author defines. Patrick Fitzgerald, like Chet Pomeroy, is a lost child and eligible to receive God's mercy, but he chooses adulterous love over salvation. Driven by the demands of an unsatisfied spirit. Patrick attempts to "come home" but fails. The novel's epigraph from Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano captures Patrick's spiritual condition: "I love hell. I can't wait to get back."
Hell has multiple references: Fitzgerald's emotional states, his domestic situation, the American West of Deadrock, Montana, and the hell described in Catholic theology. Like other McGuane protagonists, Fitzgerald is a "whiskey addict" of Irish-Catholic descent, who has not lived up to his potential and is downwardly mobile. He is a well-intentioned family member who, nevertheless, is on poor terms with his family and the community at large, troubled particularly in his affairs with women, and lost in sorrow and guilt. Patrick is painfully aware of being adrift. He had left the army to return to what was left of his family and to the family ranch, to save them and himself, only to find that he continues to suffer from "sadness-for-no-reason." Like Binx Bolling in Walker Percy's The Moviegoer (1961), a novel McGuane has said is for writers like himself what The Sun Also Rises was for writers in the 1920s, Patrick Fitzgerald experiences the pervasive "malaise" of alienation (McCaffery 211). Patrick's love for his sister Mary, his grandfather, the horses, and the place do not prevent his "waking nightmares," which reveal that these people and the place are "edges" and there is "no middle" (56).
The center cannot hold. Fitzgerald suffers a spiritual debility which he mistakenly thinks can be cured by loving Claire, the beautiful wife of Tio Burnett, an unstable and volatile Oklahoma oilman. The day Patrick meets Claire, he determines to become "somebody's angel" (35). But in this anti-western, western novel, the pieties of popular fiction are inverted: good does not triumph over evil, the protagonist doesn't save the ranch, and he doesn't, ultimately, get the girl. He comes close to losing his soul.
Deadrock, Montana (originally "Deadlock—but renamed Deadrock out of some sad and irresolute boosterism meant to cure an early-day depression"), the locus of several other McGuane novels and stories, although featuring beautiful prairie and mountain landscapes, is hellish in its provincial narrowness (1). The West has a culture doomed by the Faulknerian sins of genocide against the Indians and pride in imposing ranching and farming on a landscape inhospitable to both. Fitzgerald's domestic situation is beyond repair, in part, McGuane suggests, because of his neglect—the ranch is moribund, his whiskey-soaked grandfather hostile, and his neglected sister mentally ill. Not that he alone is entirely responsible—one of the novel's major themes is abandonment by family. Patrick's father, a test pilot, died in a plane crash, an event which in variant forms begins, ends, and haunts the entire novel. His mother, when Patrick and Mary were children, had come to their room, drunk, and announced, "Why don't you two just get out? Why don't you just get the hell out and quit causing all this trouble?" (125). Patrick knew it was a turning point in his life. Patrick, in fact, feels unconnected with anyone or anything, having an "unremitting sense that there had never been connection, not with people and not with places" (126).
This is a sense of homelessness Paul Giles finds characteristic of contemporary Irish American, Catholic writers. J. P. Donleavy's "heroes are always looking for 'home,' but no place is home" and in Kerouac "the idea of travel and exile ultimately implies a sense of ontological loss, the expulsion from paradise." "The undermining of this fundamental notion of 'home,'" Giles concludes, "reduces these wayfarers to bedraggled pilgrims on the stony paths of postlapsarian life" (400). Patrick Fitzgerald's sense of alienation and dislocation is echoed besides in McGuane's own experience as an Irish American Catholic. In his interview with Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory, McGuane connected the significance of his Irish background to his fascination with "the figure of the outsider" in response to a question focusing on Patrick in Nobody's Angel:
The outsider-stranger-bystander has always intrigued me in regard to my own family history. My family were all Irish immigrants…. People in Ireland feel like outsiders in their own country because the English have owned things for so long…. When they immigrated to the East Coast (my family went to Massachusetts), they saw themselves as an enclave of outsiders in a Yankee Protestant world. My parents moved to the Midwest, and I can assure you that … we did not consider ourselves to be Midwesterners. We saw ourselves as Catholics surrounded by Protestant Midwesterners…. When I moved to Montana in my twenties, I felt myself to be an outsider in still another world (203).
McGuane finds these qualities also in F. Scott Fitzgerald, explaining why "so much of the magic of his fiction is his famous method of 'looking through the window.' And yet that mental quality, the glassy distance, is behind his craziness and his alcoholism. The vantage point of most authentic modern fiction is dislocation" (203-04).
There may be a religious consolation for this dislocation, alienation, isolation, and despair. Nobody's Angel is rife with religious language and overtones. Early in the novel, for example, Patrick leaves a bar, "a place where God was at bay," to seek information about his troubled sister Mary at a whorehouse where she sometimes worked. There, the prostitutes are watching an interview show about the "fetus's right to life." A nun on the talk-show panel repeatedly shouts, "Sacred!" and Patrick declares that "as he was a Catholic, he would kick in the set if the fetus lost" (7). Mary, it turns out, is unmarried and pregnant. Patrick, it turns out, is not a practicing Catholic.
The exchanges between Mary and Patrick most completely reveal the religious alternative to sadness-for-no-reason, although he is so fearful and repelled by her insane talk and bizarre behavior that he misses the spiritual opportunities. The novel's implied author, of course, is the agent presenting us with an unwed and pregnant Mary who is obsessed with religious experience that either repels or eludes Patrick. Sorting through Mary's deranged but nevertheless accurate admonitions about his irresponsibility, the forces of evil, and "the universe," Patrick realizes that she is "stuck on" Catholicism. Resisting "what he saw as her irrationality," however, he is blinded to the truths beyond the madness. To Mary's comment that "There-are-none-so-blind-as-those-who-will-not-see," Patrick responds, "Yeah, right." Because of his pride, Patrick can't hear the messages Mary brings him. He misses not only Mary's earlier warnings based on an underlying Catholicism about responsibility and evil but also her later warning in her ramblings about "mortal offenses" which Patrick half-listens to while noting without registering its significance that she is reading De Laclos's Liaisons Dangereuses (96).
Nevertheless, Mary's ideas do make Patrick spiritually uncomfortable, and he finds himself reflecting self-critically that in his mid-thirties he is still drawn to live by those "easy rules of an unextended self" (67). The Catholic antidote to Patrick's moral lassitude, sadness-for-no-reason, sense of abandonment, and spiritual obtuseness, is, nevertheless, near at hand. That antidote is suggested when Mary, just before she commits suicide, plays the Bud Powell jazz rendition she and Patrick love of "Someone to Watch over Me" (100). The song is a reminder that Patrick has failed in meeting his responsibilities to watch over Mary, but it is also a reminder that no Christian is abandoned. According to Catholic tradition, everyone has a guardian angel who protects and guides, as well as saints who hear petitions because they are watching over believers.
Before her death, Mary had been reading works by St. John of the Cross, whom Patrick did not recognize because he thought that "only Jesus was the one with the cross" (24). Patrick could have benefited from more knowledge of the Spanish saint and author of The Dark Night of the Soul as well as The Living Flame, mystical lyrics about purifying the soul through patient suffering and detachment. Mary also had been reading the Spanish St. Theresa of Avila's poems about the progress of the Christian soul toward God (23). More obscurely, McGuane is alluding to St. Theresa as the patron saint of aviators. This allusion has special meaning because the novel opens with Patrick locating a dead aviator who had crashed in the mountains and whose position "seemed the image of a man in receipt of a final sacrament" (4). The novel ends with the suicide death of Tio Burnett, the husband of Patrick's lover, in his helicopter (211). From the first death Patrick learns "that life doesn't just drag on" (the lesson Chet Pomeroy had learned at his brother's coffin) and from the last death that he is a sinner (as Pomeroy had learned by giving up his messianic illusions). Patrick, who wishes to be "somebody's angel" turns out to be "nobody's angel" because he had neglected looking out for his sister and had taken Claire as his lover after her husband had asked him "to be kind of a big brother" to her (53). Besides, as the colloquial meaning of "nobody's angel" indicates, he is not a good man, even if sympathetically portrayed. His father's death was "an archangelic semaphore more dignified than death itself," which Patrick cannot decipher, but which is, still, a message from the angels (5). The dead pilots had "someone to watch over" them—a patron saint, a guardian angel, and God.
Mary's ravings and the symbolism of the dead flyers are not the only religious messages Patrick doesn't hear and understand. Ironically, Patrick's adulterous relations with Claire are fraught with religious implications which Claire understands and mentions. From the beginning, Claire understands more than Patrick does of their souls' jeopardy. The first time he makes his sexual desire known to Claire, she is described as having some kind of "absolute revelation" and makes love to him "while his attempts to remember what it was he was doing, to determine what this meant, seemed to knock like pebbles dropped down a well, long lost from sight. He was gone into something blinding and it wasn't exactly love" (78). The sex is never right—Patrick experiences "mortal confusion" and Claire is "more martyred than loved" (211). It is, indeed, "mortal," not just "moral," confusion. In adolescence, Patrick had received traditional Catholic warnings about sexual impulses and behaviors; sex and sin, in fact, had been inextricable in Patrick's Catholic upbringing. He remembers his adolescent guilt and fear of purgatory, phoning Claire, even, to confess that he "fear(s) purgatory at the very least" (148, 169). But that fear is momentary since Patrick wants to believe that his feelings for Claire are sufficient justification for his behavior, that "sufficiency rather than salvation was at issue" (181).
McGuane establishes the connection between sex and mortal sin most dramatically in the conclusion of the novel after Tio commits suicide over Patrick's and Claire's affair. Claire, discussing sin in the face of Patrick's denial, summarizes what happened by asserting, "We fucked him to death." Lust and boredom, Patrick finally thinks, had "made thrill-killers of nice people" (211).
Catholicism has not failed; Patrick has failed. Early in the novel, when Claire asks if he is Catholic and he answers "I consider myself one," she understands that, "you mean you aren't practicing" (46). Moreover, the novel's religious language and allusions persistently evoke a spiritual alternative. When Claire and Patrick go dancing Saturday night at the Northbranch saloon, for instance, the band plays three cheating songs in a row as well as "The Window up Above" (the problem and the solution) (199). The saloon lights create an ecclesiastical atmosphere and remind Patrick of flames in the Bible, not just the flames of hell but the flames of divine love that purify the soul in St. John of the Cross' lyrics (198). There are "archangelic semaphores" everywhere.
In this charged atmosphere, Patrick tries but fails to create positive accounts of his motives and intentions in his affair with Claire, most notably a version in which he again portrays himself as a guardian angel protecting her from her husband. Tio: "Altruistic cowboy tank captain rescues princess of the Cimarron from mock-epileptic oil-and-gas-lease scoundrel" (199). But he is no one's rescuer, nobody's angel, and knows "the road to hell has seen more paving materials than the Appian Way, I-90 and A-1-A combined" (199). Ironically, and pathetically, having confused profane and sacred love, Patrick's lament to Claire is, "I thought love was all that mattered" (212).
Patrick, finally, returns to the army, buys a flat in Madrid as he had fantasized earlier and, as the last line of the novel says, he "never came home again" (214). A rumor heard by Patrick's enemy, Deke Patwell, Deadrock's newspaper editor, is that Patrick is a blackout drinker living with an American woman named Marion Easterly.
What is to be made of Patrick Fitzgerald's final situation? Is he doomed to remain on the edges with no middle? Certainly that is possible, even likely. Commenting on Patrick's situation at the conclusion of Nobody's Angel, McGuane has said that "Patrick's situation is the modern situation: the adhesion of people to place has been lost…. [Y]ou either get out and do something else or the conditions will destroy you. I didn't think Patrick could win his war because his basics are fouled up, so he had to accept himself as an isolato" (McCaffery 203). Patrick, like so many of the protagonists Paul Giles finds in novels by Irish American Catholics, will never be "at home within any given setting" (400).
But allusions to Catholicism persist in evoking more positive possibilities for Patrick even though he has lost his connection to place and home. His last fantasy about living in Spain had been that "the question of smelly imbroglios starring oil-minded Southwesterners could not happen to him, stainless in Madrid." There "he'd go to the odd mass or two, not in preparation, as he might in the remorseless West; but in the healthy, ghoulish attendance of Spain, to stare at the wooden blood and pus on the old Stations of the Cross" (177). Referring to this passage about Spain, Jon Wallace concludes perceptively that despite the negative tone there is an "undercurrent of religious seriousness" through which McGuane can pay homage "to traditional religious values in a book written for a highly literate and spiritually skeptical audience" (298). Spain, we might remember in addition, was home for St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa of Avila.
The final mention of "Marion Easterly" is, moreover, ambiguously referential to both Patrick's escapism and a spiritual alternative, the dialectical poles of this novel. Marion Easterly was the fantasy girlfriend Patrick invented so as to hide his adolescent late-night carousing in town from his parents; later she became an extended fantasy of idealized womanhood which he indulges in "times of great tribulation" (175). "Beautiful in mind and spirit," Marion is entangled in Patrick's thoughts of other women, notably Claire and Mary (73, 113). Angry with Claire at one point, he puts her off by saying he's reading The Life of Marion Easterly "and it's by all three Brontë sisters" (204). But, surely, Marion Easterly is also a figure beyond adolescent idealization and lingering Victorianism. She is a promise of Christian possibilities in her name's evocation of both Mary and Easter, of divine love and the possibility of redemption, no matter how unredeemed Patrick seems. One hopes his sister Mary was more right than she knew when insisting that Marion Easterly is Patrick Fitzgerald's "greatest love" (175).
The religious preoccupations of Panama and Nobody's Angel are echoed in the several McGuane novels that precede and follow them: individual and social spiritual conditions are intertwined, a spiritual blight spreads, but some spiritual vitality may remain in Christianity, particularly Roman Catholicism. Christianity, in any case, whether moribund or efficacious, determines themes, topics, language, and outcomes in McGuane's novels. McGuane's protagonists are out of joint with themselves, their times, and "the universe." Nicholas Payne in Bushwhacked Piano (1971) speaks for them all when he observes. "Some varmint signed me up for a bum trip. And, quite honestly, I don't see why" (86). The culture isn't sustaining: Payne also says, if with a sense of his own melodrama, that "the U.S.A. is a floating crap game of strangling spiritual credit" (91). America has become "Hotcakesland" where "it is all for sale" (Ninety-Two 53).
McGuane's protagonists know, then, that something is radically wrong, but they lack the inner resources and vision to solve their problems—in fact, self-destructively, they contribute to them. Thomas Skelton, in Ninety-Two in the Shade (1973) has the "reflex to be a practicing Christian" but not the focus. Consequently, Skelton fails utterly, shot through the heart because of his pride. He has left "faith, hope and charity … largely untried" and has "an unformed vision of how he ought to live on earth with others" (22).
The central figures in McGuane's more recent novels grope toward spiritual renewal despite their unextended selves and unformed visions. At the conclusion of Something to be Desired (1984), for instance, Lucien Taylor gives a speech to his community about "his town and his country and his life." He talks about "children and the next world." His neighbors and friends cheer "with such merriment and accord and humanity that in it was a kind of sacrament between them all." Lucien couldn't "imagine where it was coming from" because earlier he, with a "battered soul," was "not sure the Savior actually got me off the long and lonely road" (167-68, 92, 94). Similarly, Joe Starling in Keep the Change. (1989), who "never quite … escaped [the feeling] that life had as one of its constant characteristics a strain of unbearable loneliness," learns at last that "somewhere in the abyss something shone," a gift of hope and faith (96, 215).
These spiritual preoccupations signify that Thomas McGuane's fiction belongs in discussions of contemporary writing shaped by Roman Catholicism. His identification with his Irish Catholic family history establishes for his novels a broad Roman Catholic perspective. Noting that in contemporary fiction by Catholics "formal Christianity and Catholicism resonate in various ways and in varying degrees of intensity," John F. Desmond sketches a broad category in which we can easily place McGuane's novels. For writers such as Louise Erdrich, Andre Dubus, and Tobias Wolf, Desmond writes, Catholicism is mostly a "shadowy presence that haunts the pilgrims' journeys" (11).
Catholicism's shadowy presence in McGuane's fiction reveals itself in frequent authorial allusions to Catholic belief and ritual, as well as an array of themes clustering around such topics as guilt, judgment, and lives in extremis. It is revealed, too, by protagonists and narrators whose language, often ironically and many times comically, is the language of religion: heaven, hell, purgatory, salvation, damnation, Jesus, Mary, God, Devil, angel, sacrament, sacred, and so on. Like Flannery O'Connor's, Thomas McGuane's Irish Catholic heritage leads him to view the world as fallen, even purgatorial. But McGuane's comment that he "pines" for religion helps us understand that, unlike O'Connor's, his characters do not unequivocally experience or acknowledge grace's potential or reality. They are never free in the ways Saul Bellow's Henderson or Augie March are; they are more like Fitzgerald's, Kerouac's and Donleavy's protagonists. Unextended selves with unformed visions, McGuane's characters are not spiritually fit; but they do have souls whose journeys are not completed and whose destinies are not fully known. For them to succeed, some overarching authority, whether it is to be found in the Roman Catholic Church or not, or through Christ's redemptive sacrifice or not, is required beyond the will, intelligence, and actions of these suffering individuals. Behind McGuane's fiction is no absolute faith in communal renewal and solidarity through Roman Catholic sacraments, and no acceptance of the dogmas of Catholic orthodoxy. While reading McGuane's fiction, however, it is wise to be on the lookout for signs of possible grace and redemption.
1. McGuane's "earth-worshipping pantheism" is too complex a subject to treat fully here. Some sense of its dimensions, however, can be gotten from his essay on bonefishing, "Close to the Bone" (Chance). On one hand, the consolation of bonefishing is that one visits another world, "a world whose cycles and conditions" are "serene to the addled twentieth-century angler." The angler "is searching less for recreation than for a kind of stillness" and finds in the bonefish a creature "radiant with nearly celestial beauty" (59). But if contact with the celestial is one dimension, the other is a more worldly boon, "the necessary, ecstatic resignation to the moment" ("The Longest Silence," Chance 21). And everywhere in McGuane's writing are catalogs of "sins" against nature.
2. In his interview with McCaffery and Gregory, McGuane commented that he identified himself with Pomeroy and his wife with Catherine. Pomeroy's loss of Catherine was "so absolutely agonizing that, unlaminated to something better, it was nihilistic. And I'm not a nihilist and didn't want this book to be nihilistic…. At that point in the end, when he's hit absolute rock bottom, the question becomes, Does he bounce, or does he flatten out and lie there? In my opinion he bounced. Slightly" (201).
Desmond, John F. "Catholicism in Contemporary American Fiction." America 170.17 (1994): 7-11.
Fisher, James T. The Catholic Counterculture in America. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1989.
Giles, Paul, American Catholic Arts and Fictions: Culture, Ideology, Aesthetics. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992.
McGuane, Thomas. Bushwacked Piano, 1971. New York: Vintage Books, 1984.
―――――. Interview with Gregory L. Morris. "Thomas McGuane." Talking Up a Storm: Voices of the New West. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P. 1994. 201-12.
―――――. Interview with Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory. "An Interview with Thomas McGuane." Alive and Writing: Interviews with American Authors of the 1980s. Urbana: U of Illinois P. 1987, 196-221.
―――――. Keep the Change. New York: Random House, 1989.
―――――. Ninety-Two in the Shade. 1973. New York: Penguin, 1980.
―――――. Nobody's Angel. 1981. New York: Ballantine, 1983.
―――――. Nothing But Blue Skies. New York: Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence, 1992.
―――――. An Outside Chance: Essays on Sport. New York: Penguin, 1982.
―――――. Panama. 1978. New York: Penguin, 1979.
―――――. Something to be Desired. 1984. New York: Vintage, 1985.
―――――. The Sporting Club. 1969. New York: Penguin, 1979.
Wallace, Jon. "Speaking Against the Dark: Style as Theme in Thomas McGuane's Nobody's Angel." Modern Fiction Studies 33.3 (1987): 289-298.
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