Thomas McGuane | Critical Essay by Mark Harris

This literature criticism consists of approximately 7 pages of analysis & critique of Thomas McGuane.
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Critical Essay by Mark Harris

SOURCE: "Tom McGuane," in Publishers Weekly, September 29, 1989, p. 50, 52.

In the following essay, McGuane talks about his writing career, his novel Keep the Change, and life on his Montana ranch.

"The heir to Hemingway"; "Captain Berserko"; "macho pig"—Thomas McGuane has had plenty of labels to live down and just as many to live up to in his nine-book career, and none of them seems to do him justice.

Barely 30 when he burst onto the literary scene with The Sporting Club, he saw his star as a novelist soar with The Bushwacked Piano and 92 in the Shade. Lyrical, coruscating and subtly political, his books made him a media darling—the counterculture cowboy. By 1975 he was writing and directing the film of his third novel, and careening toward celebrity and its gossip-page trappings: affairs, divorce, remarriage (to Margot Kidder), another divorce, remarriage, prodigious drinking and a reputation for excess in just about every area but his lean, acute prose. But with his fourth novel, Panama (1978), the critics who had made McGuane a hit "couldn't even remember what they had in mind," he recalls. The crash-and-burn reviews were more personal than literary; they took the author to task as much as they did the book.

But McGuane's private life has long been stable, alcohol- and trauma-free, and his critical fortunes have resurged in the last decade. With the novels Nobody's Angel (1982) and Something to be Desired (1984) and the short story collection To Skin a Cat (1986), the author pursued his concerns with an ever-stronger and more reflective voice. His first novel in five years, Keep the Change, is likely to keep him on the ascendant.

A hunter, avid fisherman and cutting-horse champion rider, McGuane meets PW on a stopover in New York City before continuing on to Labrador to fish for Atlantic salmon. Settling in for dinner after a long day of flying, he begins with espresso: "I need to get some IQ points back." Six-foot-two, long-limbed and darkly tanned, he approaches what he wryly calls "deep middle age" with undiminished enthusiasm and good humor.

Born in 1939 and raised in Michigan, McGuane felt the desire to write early on; his first attempt at a novel came at age nine, and "by the time I was a junior in high school, it was all I could think about," he recalls. As a young man, he thrived in the company of other writers; his classmates and friends have included Edmund White in high school, Jim Harrison in college and William Hjortsberg at Yale Drama School, where McGuane took an abortive stab at play writing.

Until his late 20s, McGuane lived nomadically, spending time in Salinas, Key West, Spain, Italy and Ireland. In the late '60s, longing for a more permanent home, he settled in Montana, where his cattle and horse ranch in tiny McLeod now houses a blended family that includes his wife Laurie, their young daughter and, intermittently, three older children from earlier marriages.

Professionally, he's roved almost as much. First published at Simon & Schuster (where "editors kept leaving me"), he decamped for Farrar, Straus, where he stayed for three books with Michael di Capua. What he calls "a business dispute" precipitated a move to Random House, where, he says, "I was just not at home." His last two books have been with the Seymour Lawrence imprint, first at Dutton and, with Keep the Change, at Houghton Mifflin. There, he says, "I'm off on another happy relationship, and I hope this one lasts."

Although its tone—a precisely calibrated balance of sensitivity, restiveness, passion and irony—is a departure from much of his previous work, Keep the Change. will be instantly recognizable as a McGuane novel to his loyalists: its territory, thematically and geographically, is purely his own. With a hero returning to his Western roots to puzzle out his feelings for two wildly different women and a conclusion brought on by no more than a careful unfolding and discovery of desires, the novel reverberates with his past writing to offer a wholly new effect. And characteristically, it's trim—under 250 pages.

"I know it's not exactly in the tradition of post-World War II American writing," says McGuane, "but I think that you should use as few scenes and paragraphs and words to achieve your effects as possible. If you're building fishing rods or shot-guns or yachts, the standard is lightness that is as much as possible commensurate with strength. I think that's a universal aesthetic, and the kind of rich overwriting which has become the standard in a certain kind of American fiction is really a mistaken idea. Accretional monument-building as a style is not one I've ever liked."

Unsurprisingly, McGuane's redrafting consists largely of excision. "For me to write a book that ended up being 400 pages, the first draft would have to be 2000. That's part of the excitement of revising, to find something that stands on its own strength rather than depending on the buttressing I thought it had to have."

As for the labels, McGuane ingenuously brushes most aside. The Hemingway comparison (in terms of both writing style and productive/destructive lifestyle) has dogged him throughout his career. Of that persistent identification he says, "either I'm outgrowing the issue or it's going away." On the antics in the 1970s that won him the "Berserko" sobriquet: "By comparison with today's dour, money-crazed climate, it does look like it was one great party. Everyone was in a slightly more festive mood. But in the '70s, I also published four or five books, wrote about eight screenplays and about 40 articles. I was getting a lot done."

Only the accusation of insensitivity (or short shrift) to women in his prose still rankles him, although he laughs when discussing the female editor who'd been "told that I was one of the macho pigs—me and Harry Crews and Jim Harrison." (After reading McGuane's works, she reported to him, "I don't think you're a macho pig at all!")

While not fond of answering for his characters—whose records with women are fairly unenviable—the author admits that "I don't think I'm ever going to make a certain type of women's literature proponent happy. A lot of women are extremely angry. For those people, who are conscious of the depth of the bad debt that has been owed to women for a long time, almost anyone [can] have some of the features they associate with the enemy. It's like having a German accent in 1919. But I have three daughters, and I'm extremely sensitive to what I perceive as their rights in the world."

A hallmark of McGuane's writing is its sense of location; the physical world is deeply important to his characters and his prose. Most frequently, it's been the town of Deadrock (a fictional gloss on Livingston), Mont. "I require that writing seem to belong somewhere," he says. "If it's floating and I can't attach it to the earth at some point, frustration sets in." Is he a late-arriving regionalist? "I object to the term officially. But in a funny way I sort of like it. Finding people who think of me as a Montana writer reinforces my wish to have succeeded in putting down roots there."

In recent years, McGuane's home state has been the site of a flourishing literary and cultural community—Richard Ford, William Kittredge, James Crumley, David Quammen and a host of other writers, actors and artists make their homes in Paradise Valley and Missoula. While McGuane jokingly refers to the Montana literary renaissance as "five guys with hardcover sales of 8000 each," he admits it pleases him. "I love Montana, but at the same time there's a certain kind of cultural deprivation that I would like to see changed. People who are born and grow up there love it so much they don't ever leave. They aren't liable to produce Márquez characters, and you go around sort of pining for that, wishing that they'd be just a tad more flamboyant."

McGuane's ranch, which keeps him completely busy for about half of every year, has taught him that "there are other circadian rhythms besides the semester system. Like it or not, you get tied into seasons, not just seasons of the planet, but breeding seasons…." During the winter months, when the ranch more or less runs itself, McGuane's schedule is an idyllic-sounding confluence of writing and reading, done in "a comfortable little log house. You're there, you can't go anyplace else and you can just make a pot of coffee, go back to bed and read and read." His passion for literature seasons his conversations, and his enthusiasms are generous and global: Chekhov, Cheever, Raymond Carver, Joyce Cary, Graham Greene and uncountable others. Although he's more reserved in criticism, his assessments can be mercilessly pithy: with scalpel precision, he dismisses a contemporary's prize-winning novel as "Micheneresque."

For a time in the 1970s, McGuane was a prolific if almost consistently dissatisfied screenwriter whose credits included Rancho Deluxe, The Missouri Breaks, Tom Horn and his own 92 in the Shade. Last spring his name turned up on the cult comedy Cold Feet, which he had written with Jim Harrison in 1976. "I literally couldn't remember what it was about," he admits, and adds that he has no plans to return to film writing. "It's menial work," he says.

McGuane begins his novels with a sense of outline and structure, but all of the big issues in his fiction are resolved in the writing itself. "It's nice to decoy oneself by making outlines and planning, but all the writing you're able to keep comes up just the way phrases come up for musicians. But for some reason, you have to pretend that it's plannable and go through a certain number of mnemonic devices just to get started."

The process was somewhat different when McGuane was younger; writing 92 in the Shade in 1973, he says, "I felt as if I had a fuel tank strapped on my back; I felt we were on the cultural nosecone of America, and I had to write about it." While many of his contemporaries became casualties of the era, McGuane survived, and views those years without sentiment or cynicism. "In the mid-'70s, we didn't think in terms of taking a life raft on a boat. A kind of Whitmanesque optimism was afloat," he remembers, "and it's definitely gone. Even then there was a sense that it might end in tragedy, and to some extent it did. There were irreversible misunderstandings between generations that were never repaired, and left an unhealed wound in American life."

That belief resounds in many of his novels, in which wars between sons and their fathers are brutal, futile and fought unto—and after—death. But the fierce cynicism of some of his earlier writing has given way to something more ambiguous, and perhaps hopeful. "I like the more recent novels better," he says bluntly; when he "squints into" his older novels, he "wants to change everything and start rewriting. You say, gee, I wish I saw everything from a constant stance, like a lighthouse. Going back to a 1955 novel is a little like looking at a 1955 Ford—kind of cute, but tailfins just don't mean today what they did then."

In December, the former angry young man of the American West will turn 50. With his family life "semi-euphoric," McGuane can pour his boundless energy into his fiction. "The only thing that fills up the work hole in my sphere of need is writing," he says. "Between me and me in the dark of night, I consider everything else a fib, even my ranching. I love to do that—it gives me a physical grounding in the world and an orderly way to say, I'm not gonna use the old head now; I'm gonna get in the pickup truck and go look at fences. But then I say, That's enough now. My real job is as a writer and I've got to get back to work."

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This section contains 1,987 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Mark Harris
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