Thomas McGuane | Critical Essay by Jerome Klinkowitz

This literature criticism consists of approximately 12 pages of analysis & critique of Thomas McGuane.
This section contains 3,471 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Jerome Klinkowitz

Critical Essay by Jerome Klinkowitz

SOURCE: "Thomas McGuane: The Novel of Manners Radicalized," in Literary Subversions: New American Fiction and the Practice of Criticism, Southern Illinois University Press, 1985, pp. 104-115.

In the following essay, Klinkowitz discusses McGuane's fiction as "the new American novel of manners." He maintains that McGuane has the ability to single out the characteristics of an age and know his characters through them.

A tea biscuit crumbles, and in its fragments Henry James can read the fortunes of a social world. "Her voice sounded like money," Nick Carraway says of Daisy Buchanan, and in that manneristic notation we sense the compelling illusion of Gatsby's life. There's even a touch of it in Faulkner: young Thomas Sutpen is turned away by a servant at the rich man's door and forever vows to build himself an equal domain. Despite our relative incivility and egalitarian beliefs, who says there is no novel of manners in America?

But then come the American 1960s. On both social and artistic fronts, the old hierarchies crumble. Down with the establishment, and death to the novel. The politics of Berkeley, Madison, Columbia, and the 1968 Democratic Convention find their match in the communal rites of Woodstock and the anti-illusionistic fiction of Brautigan and Vonnegut. Apparent anarchy dislodges the old truths. The novelist's study of society now takes place in a madhouse, and the decade's most reliable narrator is Ken Kesey's Chief Broom, who in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest warns us, "It's still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it's the truth even if it didn't happen."

Yet in Chief Broom's words can be found a clue to the new American novel of manners. Why is his narrative the truth, even though it may not have happened? Look back a few lines, as he characterizes his experience in Kesey's asylum. "I been silent so long now it's gonna roar out of me like flood-waters and you think the guy telling this is ranting and raving my God…." The truth is in the telling, and for every step within the careful structure of janitors-orderlies-practical nurses-RNs on up to The Big Nurse herself, the Chief has a perfect image. Their manners are, in terms of this novel, a matter of his transforming language, finely tuned to each.

Kesey's novel helped signal a decade's revolution, and there are many writers who follow his example and in some cases even his lifestyle in the previously unwriterly northwest corner of the United States. Richard Brautigan, for example. Jim Harrison. Guys who know their way around a trout stream or high range better than through the pubs of Greenwich Village or midtown bars near their editors.

How this all translates into a new novel of manners, however, falls to Thomas McGuane. In his twenties during the 1960s, McGuane wrote his first published novel in 1968, that year of social and political turmoil which Michael Herr (in Dispatches) described as "so hot that I think it shorted out the whole decade, what followed was mutation." Through the next dozen years, as presidential candidates were assassinated, rock stars OD'ed, and the culture at large underwent a transformation whose sudden thoroughness was unknown in previous American history, McGuane produced four more novels plus a book of essays, while paying off his Montana ranch with oddball Western filmscripts for Rancho Deluxe, The Missouri Breaks, and Tom Horn. His fiction includes the full cast of counterculture characters, from dropouts to heavy dopers and theatrical rock stars. These protagonists both form and are formed by their cultural milieu, of which McGuane is a sharp observer. But it is in their language that they become true agents of fiction, factors in the new American novel of manners.

Although his first novel, The Sporting Club, is almost biblical in its microcosmic annals of a rich men's hunting and fishing lodge, McGuane's sharpest attention to manners comes with his introduction of young protagonists out searching for America and themselves. Nicholas Payne from The Bushwacked Piano, Thomas Skelton of Ninety-Two in the Shade, and Chet Pomeroy who narrates Panama catalogue the manners of McGuane's three residencies since childhood: Michigan, Montana, and the Florida Keys. Payne has an ear for people's speech; a girl who thumbs a ride on his motorcycle out West complains, "I'll take a car any day…. You cain't play the radio own this." Skelton, heavy into drugs, hallucinates while hitching with a silent-majority-type salesman who can nevertheless find common ground and share perceptions: "When Skelton told the hardware salesman that the paint had just lifted off the whole car in a single piece, the hardware salesman agreed with him about how Detroit put things together. This was the epoch of uneasy alliances." But most impressive is McGuane's ability to convey the characteristics of his culture within the words and syntax of his narrator's own speech. Listen to Chet Pomeroy, the burned-out rock star, explain why he owns a pistol:

Something about our republic makes us go armed. I myself am happier having a piece within reach, knowing if some goblin jumps into the path, it's away with him. Here in Key West, we take our guns to parties. My pedal steel player had one on a clip underneath his instrument: it said "Death to Traitors" on the backstrap and was stolen by a fan in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, on New Year's Day.

This paragraph makes its point entirely by its conflux of manneristic references within the verbal rhythm of our era's popular idiom. Before it is a gun, it's "a piece." Adversaries are not individualized beyond a spooky presence, nor are they shot at or killed—they're just swept away by the cadence of the sentence. From here, the notations turn to rock culture: not just any music, but that from a steel guitar. And not just anywhere, but in Muscle Shoals, home of a major recording studio famous for the Southern Blues sound, and stomping grounds of the Allman Brothers Band, two of whose members died on motorcycles. Chet's way of narrating helps define the time in which he writes. Panama is the new American novel of manners.

Florida. "Drugs, alligators, macadam, the sea, sticky sex, laughter, and sudden death"—these are the elements out of which Chet constructs his novel. In his essays collected in An Outside Chance, McGuane explains his own fascination with what another of his protagonists calls "America's Land's End." Both essayist and novelist must be sensitive to the little elements of atmosphere which typify a place, such as "the ground swell of Latinate noise—that first of all things that make Key West another country." The town is "both an outrageous honky-tonk and a momento of another century," and even its biosphere is such that one gets the sense of living on another planet, where at a drive-in movie "the column of light from the projectionist's booth is feverish with tropical insects" blurring the image on its way to the screen, and when "driving home, palmetto bugs and land crabs pop under the tires." That's from McGuane's essay on tarpon hunting for Sports Illustrated. For his fictional protagonists, Key West is a springboard to history and prophecy, but all based in the country's manners which have their toe hold in this extreme piece of land. As Nicholas Payne observes.

He was happy to be in Key West. It was Harry Truman's favorite town and Harry Truman was fine by Payne. He liked Truman's remark about getting out of the kitchen if you couldn't stand the heat. Payne thought that beat anything in Kierkegaard. He also liked Truman's Kansas City suits and essential Calvinized watch-fob insouciance of the pre-Italian racketeer. He enjoyed the whole sense of the First Lady going bald while the daughter wheedled her way onto the Ed Sullivan show to drown the studio audience in an operatic mudbath of her own devising.

In just over one hundred words—quickly enough to leave undisturbed his narrative's progress through Payne's business in south Florida—McGuane evokes thirty years of American popular history. Double-breasted suits, the President's snappish wit, long-suffering Bess, daughter Margaret on Sunday night TV: such is the Americana of Payne's childhood which he rediscovers in such cultural time pockets as the Keys.

Florida yields an apocryphal vision as well. Chet notes that a clip-joint parking lot is dug up to reveal the grave of an ancient Calusa seagoing Indian, who for decades has been "staring up through four inches of blacktop at the whores, junkies, and Southern lawyers." In Ninety-Two in the Shade, Thomas Skelton takes his skiff out during a solar eclipse, glancing upward to see hundreds of birds circling a black hole in the sky, the same vacuity he finds in human relations. Times are bad. "Nobody knows, from sea to shining sea," this novel begins, "why we are having all this trouble with our republic," but McGuane's protagonists are determined to find out why. Their investigations take them to the heart of "hotcakes land," where the streets are lined with "franchized outrages" and "everything is for sale." But they can also locate themselves comfortably within an ambience constructed from the counterculture and uniquely local elements, as the author explains for Skelton:

Intelligent morning: Indian River orange juice, thousand-times-washed Levi's, perfect Cuban guayabera shirt, Eric Clapton on the radio, sunlight swimming the walls, cucarachas running a four-forty in the breadbox, mockingbirds doing an infinitely delicate imitation of mockingbirds. Yes, gentlemen, there is next to nothing; but I'm going to have fun anyway.

Skelton's trick is to "look askance and it all shines on." His two closest studies are the fishing guides Faron Carter and Nichol Dance. Carter is the less distinguished, known best for his pink wedding cake of a wife Jeannie, a former baton-twirler whose titillating half-time act has been a monument to "a whole civilization up shit creek in a cement canoe without a dream of a paddle." Dance is more original, at home in Key West as America's terminal man who has fled a murder rap up North to see his car, smoking from a jammed brake drum, ignite and explode on the town's main street—"Nothing to do but stand back and watch her go."

Skelton measures the distance between these two guides and their methods, computing an average of manners for the Key. But in the end, he favors Dance's extreme and becomes himself America's terminal man, burned out by the 1960s and murdered off Barracuda Key.

Nicholas Payne of The Bushwacked Piano is a more comprehensive hero, touching base with all three of McGuane's favorite regions. For him, Michigan is a place to escape: upper-middle-class parents who would suck him into the "Waring blender" of their homogenized lives, future in-laws who'd keep him out of their family unless he finishes law school, a rival boyfriend who's a perfect dud of a junior GM exec but who can dress like a department store mannequin, and so forth.

When Payne takes off, it is to experience things: a paragraph in which he drives his motorcycle along the California coast matches image-for-image a description McGuane included in his Sports Illustrated essay on riding the Matchless 500. His girlfriend and her family have taken off for their Montana vacation home; crossing its entryway, Payne feels compelled to mimic Ernest Hemingway's shotgun suicide. But as always McGuane has a sharp eye for manners and is an artist at summing up a character, even when with the girlfriend Ann Fitzgerald it's making the decision simply to inventory her room:

Protractors, lenses, field guides, United States Geodetic Survey topographical maps, cores of half-eaten apples, every photograph of Dorothea Lange's ever reproduced, tennis shorts, panties, a killing jar, a mounting board, fatuous novel, a book about theosophy, a bust of Ouspensky, a wad of cheap Piranesi prints, her diplomas and brassieres, her antique mousetraps, her dexamyl and librium tablets, her G-string, firecrackers, bocci balls and flagons, her Finnish wooden toothbrush, her Vitabath, her target pistol, parasol, moccasins, Pucci scarves, headstone rubbings, buffalo horns, elastic bandages, mushroom keys, sanitary napkins, monogram die for stationery, Elmer Fudd mask, exploding cigars, Skira art books, the stuffed burrowing owl, the stuffed, rough-legged hawk, the stuffed tanager, the stuffed penguin, the stuffed chicken, the plastic pomegranate, the plaster rattlesnake ashtray, the pictures of Payne sailing, shooting, drinking, laughing, reading comics, the pictures of George smiling gently in a barrera seat at the Valencia Plaza de Toros, an annotated Story of O, the series of telephoto shots of her mother and father duking it out beside the old barge canal in Washington, D.C., Payne's prep school varsity jacket, an English saddle, a lid of Panama Green, Charlie Chaplin's unsuccessful autobiography, dolls, a poster from the movie Purple Noon, a menu from the Gallatoire restaurant, one from the Columbia in Tampa, one from Joe's Stone Crab in Miami and one from Joe Muer's in Detroit, and one rolled skin from a reticulated python curled around the base of a stainless steel orbiting lamp from Sweden—in short, a lot of stuff lay wall to wall in a vast mess, upon which she threw herself with energy born of her separation from Nicholas Payne.

Why is this important? Not for tour de force writing, though it takes that talent to get the job done. Structurally there's the narrative need for an explanation—why won't Ann simply move in with Payne?—which that laborious inventory now makes clear. "Ann didn't want to pair off," we're told. "She wanted to play in her room with all that junk for a few more years."

Sharp-eyed and sharp-eared Nicholas adapts to Montana, jawboning it with a backcountry mechanic and studying the rodeo riders' techniques until he's figured out how to stay on a bronc for fifty seconds, winning Ann's esteem. But there's still more of America that he needs to immerse himself in before a true sense of himself can be found. Therefore it's on the road—less of a Kerouac tradition than an homage to Huck Finn, whose shore-bound troubles become things of the past once he's back in flow with the river. Highway AlA to Key West, a river of concrete which like Huck's Mississippi takes you to the extreme terminus before it all vanishes into nothing.

McGuane's facility with manners is evident once more in his ability to use them for parody. The Bushwacked Piano's narrative follows parallel paths as Payne celebrates these cultural idiosyncracies while Ann mocks them. She writes poetry, shoots arty photographs, and reads D.H. Lawrence seeking to be "at one" with things; with Payne as her guide, she finds the best chances for identification in the "simple national archetypes like floozies, bowlers, and rotarians." In Ninety-Two in the Shade, McGuane himself is partial to such caricatured types, notably Faron Carter's baton-twirler wife: "Twirling, dropping to one knee for the catches, then prancing downfield in a mindlessness now growing culturally impossible, she was a simple pink cake with a slot." Jeannie Carter is a natural at this, but the effect is heightened when Ann adopts it as a role. As with McGuane's protagonists, her motives are fiendish: "In an epoch in which it was silly to be a druid or red Indian, there was a certain zero-hour solace in being something large enough to attract contempt." And so Ann looks forward to being a floozy "as another girl might have anticipated her freshman year at Vassar. With almost Germanic intentness, she had set her sights on being cheap and available and not in the least fussy." Pulling out the peroxide, hair spray, and heavy makeup, she faces the mirror. "Call me Sherri," she squeaks.

Other elements of satire abound. The American entrepreneur is caricatured in C. J. Clovis, who sells multi-storied bat towers for ridding areas of their mosquito problems. The folks on Mente Chica Key who buy one are in turn satirized as the typical country bumpkins eager to be chiseled by this gentle grafter from up North. Proof of the parody is that none of these cameo shots is held in focus for long. Clovis vanishes like the fly-by-night he is, the gulled townsfolk fade away into the sunset of their gumbo manners, while Ann picks up and leaves Nicholas Payne for the finer styles of her GM junior executive, pausing only to stop at Neiman-Marcus first for a quick change back from floozy-hood. George meets her at the Detroit airport, she in an Oscar de la Renta ensemble complemented with sandals by Dior, he in jacket by J. Press, Pucci cravat, and seamless cordovans from Church of London. "See them" the narrative section concludes, "running thus toward one another, perfect monads of nullity."

With Panama, McGuane comes to the point where he can trust his protagonist with the narration. Chet Pomeroy is a rock performer, adept at theatricalizing his culture's dark desires, "paid to sum up civilization or to act it out in a glimmer." On stage he's done this with his music; in Panama the effect is verbal, where Chet is no less a singer of his country's songs. Sometimes the quotations are direct, as when he's mourning the loss of his girlfriend and acknowledges that he's got heartaches by the million, or listening to another girl explain that "bad luck and trouble is getting to be my middle name." If I didn't have bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all, and happiness is a thing named Joe. Watch the words, his girlfriend cautions him, and Chet appreciates how "the occupational hazard of making a spectacle of yourself, over the long haul, is that at some point you buy a ticket too." In terms of manners, Chet has become a communal catalyst, having "poured blood from my head so that strangers could form a circle."

In the tropical atmosphere and shabby economics of Key West, Chet finds it easy to be the poet of decay. Everything's for sale and nothing's worth buying. What good there's been is swept away by dubious progress, reminding Chet of the manners of his time: "Today an old family jewelry store had become a moped rental drop; a small bookstore was a taco stand; and where Hart Crane and Stephen Crane had momentarily coexisted on a mildewed shelf was now an electric griddle warming a stack of pre-fab tortillas." Nature itself seems ready to rebel, and the air reeks decadence. Chet's narrative eye is on present manners and their long-term consequence, a vision both timely and millenial—here, with its lyric language, is another key to the new American novel of manners. "When they build a shopping center over an old salt marsh," Chet approvingly observes, "the seabirds sometimes circle the same place for a year or more, coming back to check daily, to see if there isn't some little chance those department stores and pharmacies and cinemas won't go as quickly as they'd come."

Self-consciously the artist, and so ingratiated in the reader's mind, Chet can introduce lines of poetic imagery without disrupting his ongoing sense of story. Offbeat characters can be introduced with a savor for their individuality, and examples of extreme behavior blend easily with Chet's manner of storytelling. Take Marcelline, his girlfriend's girlfriend, distinguished by her scandalous habits and kinky sexuality. She robs graves, blackmails sugar daddy lovers, and is as ready to jump into bed with Chet's girlfriend as with him. A perfect counterculture extra who herself doubts she's a survivor: "I might be gone in the next reel." How does the new American novelist sum this all up? In the perfectly concise sentence capped with a image unique to Marcelline's innocently charming idiosyncracy, as "a leggy, otherwordly beauty, trailing her dubious dreams and pastel whoredom like a pretty kite."

Above all, Thomas McGuane is a novelist of manners because of his ability to single out the characteristics of an age and to know his characters through them. Coupled with his narrative ability to blend these details into a convincing pitch, such aptness of notation helps create the spirit of the times and of his protagonists. Listen to Chet complain, with a style and vision which give us a feeling of his woes:

For some reason, scarcely anything seems to bespeak my era so much as herpes simplex. Oddly, it appears as—what?—a teensy blister. Then a sore, not much, goes away, a little irritant. It's infectious. When your girl gets it, from you, it is not at all the same thing. For instance, she screams when she pisses. She won't put out. She demands to know, "Where did you get this one?" The answer is: From the age.

From the cultural conflux, Chet has drawn inward to the most intimate physical details and then suddenly reached outwards again, just when his girlfriend asks for a specific explanation. The specific is explained by the general when each is closely realized; in his ability to modulate the two within a convincing narrative, McGuane becomes the surprising heir to Fitzgerald and James.

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