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Critical Review by Eric Larsen
SOURCE: "A Literary Quilt of Faded Colors," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 17, 1989, pp. 3, 10.
In the following review, Larsen criticizes McGuane's novel Keep the Change, calling it a "half-hearted work," of "tossed-together leftovers."
The irrepressible Thomas McGuane strides forth once again, in [Keep the Change], his 10th book and seventh novel, to take on nothing less than the breadth and troubled essence themselves of native life in end-of-the-century America. In the McGuane mode, it's a book that seems to set out to do all things—dazzle, satirize, embrace, lament, and perhaps at end to salvage the pieces of a lesser world. The work disappoints, though seeming itself, by the finish, to be less an antidote to that world than another piece of it.
The literary energies of the indefatigable McGuane can put a reader in mind of something like a many-colored quilt—there's the outdoor flavor and manliness of Hemingway over there, of course (and there, and there), here are some swatches of the ribald and word-happy picaresques of J. P. Donleavy, others of the anti-hero comics of Amis and the Angry Young Men; there's the bold and nervy strain of the American satirists of class and commerce, from Sinclair Lewis on down; and here's the poetic and telling observer of baffled small lives in backwater places, the imager of quietly despairing Americana descending from, say, Sherwood Anderson and the early regionalists.
These are noble antecedents, to a one, and their emergence in the uneven fabric of McGuane's work-now here, now there—can result in moments of brief and captivating, sometimes hilarious, brilliance. But the whole cloth that's woven from them, the overall result, the book itself and the inner spirit of it—these can be another matter. Not quite satire that's held at a level of sustained effectiveness, not quite a non-satiric novel of felt experience, not quite a successful blending of the two, Keep the Change reads instead, echo of its own title, like disappointingly half-hearted work, tossed-together leftovers, a project without the ability or inner conviction to find out what it really is or what it's really for.
What feels empty and perfunctory at the heart of the book may be a result of what's empty and perfunctory at the core (intentionally or not is another question) of McGuane's chosen hero this time around. Born and reared on a cattle ranch in Montana, Joe Starling Jr. is portrayed from the start as being unsure whether or not he wants to inherit his birthright of open land. His heavy-drinking father ranched it, went on to become a banker and then "an agricultural executive," but nevertheless is presumed still to love the land, and in the early pages of the book he counsels son Joe, in the sped-up tropes of comic Western parody, not to "let that old s.o.b. Overstreet get it. He tried to break me when I came into this country and he darn near got it done. We get along okay now but his dream is to make his ranch a perfect square and this is a big bite out of his southeast corner."
That Joe's father soon dies without having properly clarified Joe's title to the ranch will provide later plot complications, but more centrally at issue is Joe's attitude toward his would-be inheritance. "Joe loved the place but he didn't expect or really want to end up on it altogether," we read. And, considering the probable fact that the land "would one day be his," Joe concludes this to be "not precisely a soaring thought. He really wondered how he would put his heritage in play. He found the future eerie and he already wanted to paint."
All could be well with the book if a reader were actually able to feel the truth of either side of the double premise—that Joe "loved the place" on the one hand, and that he "wanted to paint" on the other. But both ideas, in spite of McGuane's often desultory efforts to pull them into vitality, stubbornly remain more like identifying labels on a string-operated figure than like inner convictions deriving from a genuine psychological life. Given this limitation, the author gains free license to move his character around at will to send him (after a summer of working—and losing his virginity—on the ranch) out East, where he graduates from Yale, strives half successfully (so McGuane says, but never shows) to become a serious painter, and ends up in Florida, and then allows the author just as freely to send him fleeing again back to Montana on a putatively spiritual quest to reclaim his heritage and roots.
It's as though, again and again, Joe were less a real character than a pre-made and movable device to let McGuane write about whatever he might want to write about: the jaded and decadent tackiness of Florida; the flamboyantly and yet conventionally sexy Astrid, whom Joe hooks up with in Florida and stays half-involved with throughout the book; the worn-out town of McGuane's Deadrock, near the ranch; the sleazy and boundless opportunism of cheap entrepreneur Ivan ("Man was meant to consume") Slater, ex-Yale classmate; or the restaurant of the Yale Club in New York, where there's a hilarious moment in a scene that is, as it happens, wholly extraneous narratively.
It's unarguably true that a novel could succeed perfectly well in this way—as a purely linear comedy, aiming first for brightness and maybe not at all for depth, exploiting a character who's primarily just a narrative convenience; but McGuane's book struggles uneasily against the limits of just these traits, leading the author, to telegraph to the reader again and again, as if in nagging after-thoughts, the thematically deeper sides of what Joe is supposedly thinking or feeling, as in banal and empty lines such as "Joe was maddened by joy at being in the country of the West. He felt that he would find a restored condition for his life here."
McGuane's eye is sharp and his quick aim often perfect, especially in small things, as when Joe is on the road from Florida to Montana ("A radio preacher shouted, 'Satan is playing hardball!'"), or when he notices in a tidy residential part of Deadrock that "On most lawns, a tiny white newspaper lay like a seed," or in describing the Dickensian figure of Joe's Uncle Smitty, a shell-shocked alcoholic still living (or so he lets on) in the world of 1945—who himself makes a wily grab for the money tied up in the ranch.
But the book as a whole labors both for meaning and material descends at one moment to farce appeals at the next to high melodrama; allows Joe for long sections to forget important things like his (he thinks) illegitimate daughter, then suddenly hyperbolizes their urgency and significance; at one moment romanticizes the land and Joe's desire for it, at the next suggests that there wasn't much certainty of will there anyhow, concluding with half wistful toss-aways such as the one suggested when Astrid, who followed him to Montana, turns away from Joe: "It had been lovely, anyway," he muses. "It was a provisional life."
It may be, of course, that McGuane is a jump ahead of the reader, intending all along, against odds, to make something, anything, out of half abandoned, worn, or leftover material: to write, as part of the message, only a provisional book. At one point, when they are still in Florida, Astrid asks Joe why it is that he doesn't paint anymore. His answer is: "Paint what?" It's a question that seems to speak to the whole of this often skilled yet self-consciously jaunty and oddly mechanical book that, purposely or otherwise, is about the absence of things and emptiness.
This section contains 1,282 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)