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Critical Essay by Gregory L. Morris
SOURCE: "How Ambivalence Won the West: Thomas McGuane and the Fiction of the New West," in Critique, Vol. XXXII, No. 3, Spring, 1991, pp. 180-89.
In the following essay, Morris praises McGuane as one of a number of regional fiction writers of "the new West."
Writing in 1980, in a special issue of TriQuarterly dedicated to new writers of the American West, William Kittredge and Steven M. Krauzer declared
The current status of western writing is similar to that of southern American writing in the early 1930s when a major regional voice, in the persons of such authors as William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty, Andrew Lytle, and Katherine Anne Porter, was beginning to be heard. Just as the old south was gone, the old west is gone. Free of the need to write either out of the mythology or against it, the writers of the new west, responding to the variety and quickness of life in their territory, are experiencing a period of enormous vitality. (13)
That period of vitality has sustained itself partly on the sheer strength of landscape, partly on the imaginations of writers like Thomas McGuane who have been busy redefining the shape of the "new West" in their fictions. I would contend that in many ways, McGuane is responsible for this resurgence, this renaissance; that he has worked hard to open up the new West to its newest writers such as Patricia Henley, David Long, John Keeble, Rick Bass, and others by removing layer after layer of myth, stripping away the accumulated patterns of story and legend and belief that have transformed the West into an anachronism.
Paradoxically, all of this noble work has been done under a measure of protest. The concept of place, which for McGuane translates into regionalism, is one not especially dear to his heart: "The vulgarity we call the 'sense of place' is a fairly nelly sub-instance of schizophrenia, saving up facts, preferably inherited, about locale. It's like when Southerners talk about losing the war; you want to puke" (An Outside Chance 221). As a writer, McGuane has always insisted upon the idea of an "American space," of an undiminished, unpartitioned landscape; in the same essay, "Roping, from A to B," he says he was a writer trained by Kerouac "in the epic idea that the region was America." Therefore, things especially American—images, obsessions, dreams, deficiencies—are things held in common across that landscape. To be American is to travel well.
As a writer, McGuane favors certain portions of this region that we call America; certain locales in this republic are more familiar, more comfortable, more promisingly troublesome than others. Therefore, we have come to know McGuane's Michigan and McGuane's Key West and McGuane's Louisiana and Alabama. And, clearly, we have come to know McGuane's Montana, McGuane's Deadrock. All of these places figure significantly in his fiction and in the ideas contained within that fiction; but the pervasive, informing influence of the American West is always at the heart of McGuane's writing.
This condition is particularly interesting for a number of reasons. McGuane works hard to dismiss the notion of region, of localized landscape; yet he insists upon returning to those specific American geographies (one might stress the American here), and in doing so helps to define more clearly what others might easily perceive as region, as the specifics of place. For much of his career, McGuane has written out of an ambivalence that is at once personal, political, and aesthetic. In a 1975 interview, talking of having to divide his time between Key West and Montana, McGuane remarked: "I never want to leave one place for the other, but I don't feel like a real Key-Wester, or a real anything. Nabokov's been referring to himself lately as a 'friendly outsider,' and I find that a salubrious phrase. If I feel anything, it's a writer, a space man who's just landed. I'm pretty rootless, however sad that may sound" (Carter 54). For the past ten years or so, McGuane has been writing without a sense of place, denying a sense of place, but writing about a sense of place and, I think, desiring a sense of place. Apparently he now has discovered and accepted that place: "Montana is my home, my adopted home," McGuane writes in "Roping, from A to B" (An Outside Chance 213).
What has taken McGuane so long in adopting that place as home has been his political ambivalence to the American West and to its attendant mythology. It is as if he has been carrying on a love-hate affair with the region, embracing certain elements of the West, rejecting others, all the time trying to identify the true nature of the beast. On the one hand, he portrays the West as an exhausted landscape, all its myth used up, all its historical exchange spent. It is a played-out landscape inhabited by played-out characters. These characters come expecting, or hoping for, the old West, and find instead a new West, one that cannot, will not sustain their worn-out personalities and their worn-out beliefs.
On the other hand, however, the high lonesome does persist. The West will not disappear. It insists upon accommodation. What McGuane does is open—or re-open—the West to redefinition, reformation, reinvention. McGuane, in his heart of hearts, loves the old West, loves its ethic, its myth; but he understands that what he loves has, for the most part, vanished—that is one of the things he sets out to prove in his fiction, and it is a necessary proof. However, as he dismantles the apparatus of the old West, McGuane is careful to leave in place particular elements of that apparatus. Instead of the total extinction of myth, we have the revision of myth. Ultimately, McGuane seems to suggest that the tradition of the West sustains itself in a reformulated environment.
McGuane refashions this new West, moreover, out of an equally ambivalent aesthetic, one that allows him to move between a love for the region itself and a disdain for what that region has become, for what has been worked upon that region. First, McGuane must unmask the West, reveal the mythic imposture, strip away the pretense that clings to the West out-of-time and essentially out-of-place. Thus, he exaggerates both condition and character, magnifies the flaw, the imposture. Among McGuane's many talents as a writer is his brilliant use of satire, his vision comic, dark, and painful. Thus, character often turns into caricature, funhouse-mirror images that both distort and deflate the historical perception of what these characters traditionally should be.
Against these caricatures McGuane opposes his protagonist-outsiders, his "dislocated cowboys"—men who come to the high lonesome to find themselves, to locate the myth, and their place within it. These heroes usually float for awhile, their self-discovery often mirroring their discovery of place, or placelessness. Sometimes they remain, content with new self, new West; sometimes they escape, unsettled, misplaced, seeking relocation.
While they are there, however, these characters help reveal McGuane's profound, though underplayed, affection for the West they temporarily inhabit. For although McGuane's method is predominantly satiric, and he generally keeps a cool distance between himself and the West he looks to demystify, the language he uses consistently betrays his real feeling for the region. Specifically, there is a significant shift in tone and perspective when McGuane gets caught up in the description of landscape and of work, two elements of the West that survive the changes in place and culture, two elements that link old with new. The high lonesome, the Absarokas, the Crazies—though touched by change, by the new West of "coyotes, schemers, venture capitalists" (as Lucien Taylor describes the situation in Something to Be Desired)—these features of landscape overwhelm the puny, often pathetic shadows of men who attempt to corral, exploit, capitalize the region.
These same shady, shadowy figures are shown up by the work that other men do, work that is authentic, full of meaning and worth and history. Work, for McGuane, is evidential: "My favorite concept is that the proof is in the pudding: what you do" (An Outside Chance 221). What counts is performance within a specific place; repeatedly in McGuane's fiction, characters are momentarily measured, transformed, redeemed by the work-rituals they prosecute. These work-rituals have their origins, their roots in the very old West that McGuane labors so hard to displace. If you are an outsider, you prove yourself by executing the native rituals, even while you work your changes upon the native culture. McGuane believes in the quality of these rituals, these significant remnants of the old West tradition, even though he sees the great part of that tradition as archaic, a brittle carapace slung upon the back of a new, less likeable creature.
This aesthetic pattern of ambivalence, of denial, and of confirmation repeats itself throughout McGuane's fiction, making itself most apparent, logically enough, in the novels and stories set in McGuane's Montana, in the Deadrock landscape. In Nobody's Angel, Patrick Fitzpatrick returns to the West a self-described "cowboy outsider," a fourth-generation Deadrocker still looking for ratification. He confronts a West that is at once familiar and perniciously alien, a West, on the one hand, filled with cowboy-gentlemen and Indian remains, and on the other, overrun with Cowboys for Christ and mock-cowboys from the Midwest and the Southwest ("the first part of the West with gangrene"). McGuane captures this outsized, inflated image in the caricature of Tio Burnett, the imitative would-be Westerner—threatening, pathetic, crude.
Balanced against this portrait is Fitzpatrick's grandfather, the man who is "too cowboy to play to nostalgia for anyone; though as a boy he had night-hawked on the biggest of the northern ranches, had seen gunfighters in their dotage, had run this ranch like an old-time cowman's outfit, built a hand-some herd of cattle, raised his own bulls and abjured farm machinery" (61). Unlike his son and his grandson, Old Fitzpatrick has stayed behind, has lived the ranchlife, and now finds that life too much for his age and his aging will. But the power of his recollections, the clarity and force of his language, the past that he evokes and brings close for Patrick—all reveal the underlying ambivalence of McGuane's vision, his reluctance to let the old West go completely free.
The same ambivalence is revealed more directly in the descriptions of Patrick's horsemanship, where the narrative tone shifts markedly to one that is serious, matter-of-fact, plainly detailed. The descriptions reveal both McGuane's intimacy with the ritual, and his belief in the worth and measure of that ritual: "She was young. And when he pitched the saddle up on her, he held the cinch, girth and billets so that nothing would slap and start her pulling back. Today he tried her in a grazing bit to get her nose out a little; he had been riding her on a higher-ported bit, and she was collecting her head too much" (19). And once atop the horse, Patrick "proves his pudding," connects himself with the old West from his vantage point in the new:
Patrick changed his weight from stirrup to stirrup, felt her compensate, then stopped her. She fidgeted a moment, waited, then let the tension go out of her muscles. He moved her out again to the right. All she gave him was her head; so he stopped her, drew her nose each way nearly to his boot, then made a serpentine track across the pasture, trying to get a gradual curve throughout her body in each of her turns. The rowels on his spurs were loose enough that they chinked with her gaits. Patrick used spurs like a pointing finger, pressing movement into a shape, never striking or gouging. On horseback, unlike any other area of his life, he never lost his temper, which, in horsemen, is the final mark of the amateur. (19-20)
There is nothing skittish, nothing flighty, nothing existentially cool about the language here; instead, there is detail that is authoritative, realistic, unmediated by the distractions of Patrick's normal world: "I love this scene. It has no booze or women in it, he rejoiced."
In the end. Patrick cannot locate himself in this Deadrock world, cannot overcome the disjunctures of place and event and escapes to Spain, to an alternate vision, an alternate dream or myth. He abandons the West, or at least the new West, abandons his home ("he never came home again"), gives it up as lost to the ways of a culture more alien than the one he runs off to. But he carries with him those traces of the familial and regional past—family and region are inextricably bound up in one another—taking them as things of value, things worth the cost of transportation.
A similar pattern emerges in Something to be Desired, which describes Lucien Taylor's flight from self and from his past. Here, the "cowboy outsider" returns to a place at once his own and oddly inherited, a place dotted with images familiar, disturbing, evocative, a place (like Taylor) in flux. The ranch that becomes his, itself a reminder of the West that was, possesses its own living artifact, the hired hand. W. T. Austinberry, who walked "with one elbow held out from his body like the old-timers one saw when Lucien was a boy. He had jinglebobs on his spurs, which tinkled merrily as he went. How Lucien loved this vaguely ersatz air of the old days!" (37). Austinberry is a cowboy-manqué, a reproduction in living, breathing color of a past that Taylor (like his son) read about in those "true stories of the American West." It is sadly appropriate that Austinberry is seduced, and ultimately destroyed, by a figure of the New West, the New Age, the New Reality.
Taylor understands the disparity between what was and what is in the American space he inhabits, and thus his story is generally told in a voice that is mocking, and self-mocking. But the landscape of the West has its undeniable power. When Taylor and Austinberry ride out (note the vantage point—on horseback—the fulfillment of ritual) to "gather up some year-lings," they also ride up into the foothills, a perspective that allows them a certain distance and that allows Taylor to "lose his sense of irony":
The two men ascended to the flat top of the first bench. They could look down from here and see the broad plan of the ranch with clarity, as well as the ascent of the agrarian valley floor to the imperial rock of the Crazies. The whole thing was forged together by glacial buttresses and wedges of forested soil that climbed until stone or altitude discouraged the vegetation. In springtime the high wooded passes exhaled huge clouds of pollen like smoke from hidden fires, which in a sense they were. These sights seemed to draw Lucien's life together. (37)
Both the language and the experience illuminate; the discrete parts of Taylor's existence cohere in these moments of authentic, substantial wonder. Passages like these are moments of rest, of tonal pause where the reader, and McGuane's hero, can catch his breath, touch earth, reorient himself to what is real and permanent.
For the irony resumes; McGuane picks up his sharp satiric voice, turning Lucien Taylor from rancher to spa owner—another user of the landscape, another symbol of the new West mentality. The portrait of Taylor here is, importantly, satiric, blended of light and dark comedy; Taylor is a character in whom we both want and want not to believe. He fails the ranch and the tradition it represents, forfeits "what he had paid to be here alone," that price a little too high. With some reluctance and self-consciousness, Taylor transforms the old into the new-within-the-old, comically reconstructing from odds and ends a symbolic hybrid (his spa) that capitalizes on the old West myths and images Taylor once revered (and, to some degree, still does revere). Finally, Taylor desires only reduction; he covets "an island," something insular, a withdrawal from the American space he originally hoped to reclaim.
Most recently, in the stories in To Skin a Cat, McGuane has examined in particular detail life in the new West, examined it from many perspectives and in many voices. In "Little Extras," a young fellow, newly married, caught amid the trappings of the new West—the doublewide trailer being the most evident symbol—loses just about everything worth having; woman home, self. He learns the lesson of starting out on the new western frontier. In "The Road Atlas," Bill Berryhill, his "gear, all New West," struggles against the intrusive influence of his Yuppie brothers—all Yuppie new West—at the same time that he tries to keep a hold on his ranch and a woman. Here, as in the Deadrock novels, McGuane betrays his affection for the old ways, the old labors that have maintained themselves in the lives of some new westerners; here, he describes Berryhill cutting a yearling out of a herd:
The steer just stopped and took things in. The steer moved and Red [his horse] boiled over, squealing and running off. Bill took a light hold of him, rode him in a big circle, then back to the same place on the steer. This time, Red lowered himself and waited; and when the cow moved he sat right hard on his hocks, broke off, stopped hard, and came back inside the cow. Now he was working, his ears forward, his eyes bright. This little horse was such a cow horse, he sometimes couldn't stand the pressure he put on himself. The steer then threw a number nine in his tail and bolted. Red stopped it right in front of the herd. He was low all over, ready to move anywhere. Bill tipped his head and saw the glint of eye and the bright flare at his nostrils. (150)
Even though the language in the majority of these stories is noticeably more down-to-earth, more tempered and more confident and more mature, McGuane seems to tip his hand in such passages as these, as if he settles in to this kind of description, seats himself, finds a good purchase.
In other stories, elements of the old and the new West figure in various ways. In "Partners," a story of the white-collar, Yuppie new West, the central character, Dean Robinson, finally "gets Western," his character built upon a proof in performance, upon a violent, physical proving of self. In "Like a Leaf," an old rancher (who in some ways could be Patrick Fitzpatrick's grandfather) involves himself with a wild woman, a sort of sexual outlaw, an attractive Calamity Jane, and watches as that involvement grows crazy, outrageous, ultimately fatal. After she sexually buys her way into an old prison on the outskirts of Deadrock (a prison that once held "famous Western outlaws"), the woman takes on these new West desperadoes, services them, and then is shot by the old-timer, who acts out of an almost old West code of ethics: "The little homewrecker kneels at the end of the sandbar and washes herself over and over. When I am certain she feels absolutely clean, I let her have it. I roll her into the pool, where she becomes a ghost of the river trailing beautiful smoky cotton from a hole in her silly head" (54). This sort of ethical violence is countered by the amoral, free-wheeling violence of the title story, which is the story most akin to McGuane's pre-Montana-adoption fiction. Here, McGuane creates the familiar, darkly comic send-ups, from Bobby Decatur, the mock-cowboy from Deadrock who longs to be a pimp; to his mother, Emily, who lives in New York City and dresses like Dale Evans. The jazzed-up life of Decatur is a mess of deceit and abuse and egotistic nastiness, a life that seeks adventure but swirls downward into death, into a dismal, unheroic end in the symbol of all that is not-the-West-within-the-West: California.
Even when McGuane is not writing solely or particularly of the American West in his fiction, the influence of that geography works itself into that fiction. In The Bushwhacked Piano, for instance, Nicholas Payne, taking what he calls the "Rand McNally approach to self-discovery," occupies various portions of that American space, moving through Michigan, into Montana, and on to the South and to Florida. Payne is an escapee from these lesser regions, his character an awkward juxtaposition of the comic and the genuine; he pursues, he perceives, and occasionally he does. The Montana portion of his travels is filled with the same sort of ironic quality that infuses McGuane's fiction throughout: the Fitzgeralds' ranch, the Double Tepee, is a comic rendition of what a ranch should be; even its history is a commentary on the changes wrought in this part of the republic:
The Fitzgeralds' Double Tepee Ranch, whose twin triangle brand aroused local cowboys to call it wishfully the Squaw Tits, sat on a bench of fat bottom land in a bend of the Shields River somewhere between Bangtail Creek and Crazyhead Creek. It was one of the many big holdings whose sale was consummated through the pages of the Wall Street Journal. The ranch had been founded, under its present name, by Ansel Brayton, a drover from New Mexico who had brought the earliest herds this far north. It was sold—through the Wall Street Journal—by Ansel Brayton's grandson, a well-known Hialeah faggot. (68)
And Nicholas Payne sees other "curious things happening in the American West. For instance, at the foot of the Belt Mountains, a young man who had earlier committed the stirring murder of a visiting Kuwait oil baron, ate from a tin and marked 'mudder' at his captors" (119). And when Payne goes to buy a pair of boots, he gets this spiel: "'Here's a number that sells real well here in Big Sky Country. It's all-American made from veal leather with that ole Buffalo Bill high stovepipe top. I can give you this boot in buff-ruff, natural kangaroo or antique gold—'" (49). This is not a place for the self-discoverer, at least not for one like Payne, who still holds to certain mythic conceptions of the West. No wonder that The Bushwacked Piano, the first book in which McGuane really touches down in Montana, offers the least sympathetic, the most ironic treatment of that terrain. And no wonder that Payne tires of this West, begins to "lose interest" and heads South. When he tires of Florida (or vice versa), his Hudson Hornet is headed toward the "interior of the continent," perhaps back to the high lonesome.
One of McGuane's finest comic send-ups of the new western character appears in Ninety-Two in the Shade, the novel least attached to the American West. McGuane gives us Olie Slatt, a loud but no-larger-than-life new westerner plunked down among the Florida Keys, bellowing a mock-folkloric, mock-heroic boast to the other contestants in the pie-eating competition:
"I am Olie Slatt. And don't you ever forget it. I mine for subbituminous low-sulphur coal in the Bull Mountains of Roundup, Montana, where they have to blast through twenty feet of sandstone to reach the vein. We have two spoils bands with eight slopes and four different strata arrangements. I'm damned proud of that and I'm going to win today. Don't you ever forget it." (92)
Slatt is a miner, the new and disreputable figure on the landscape of the American West; mining, in McGuane's West, is always the work of last resort, of least value.
What a significant irony, then, that Slatt is the final arbiter of justice when things get truly western between Thomas Skelton and Nichol Dance: Skelton, the would-be "horseman of light," Dance, the latter-day incarnation of the American outlaw, a variation on Charlie Starkweather (the outlaw of the new American West) with his Nebraska outrage. In the end, when Dance, acting out his private, bizarre ethic, shoots Skelton, Slatt closes the novel by bringing in his "prize"—the Western lawman cleaning up his territory—hammering Dance's head to a pulp in the process (though shooting Dance is what Slatt "first thought he owed the republic").
This image of the outlaw is used with particular effect and purpose in Panama, a book set wholly in the Florida Keys, yet a book emphatically informed by western (both old and new western) images and influences. Although the locale is nonwestern, the novel's plot re-enacts an old West model. Charlie Pomeroy, dissipated, "exhausted" rock figure (a "performer" of sorts), looks to replay the cowboy role, constantly "trying to act like a cowboy," although realizing that "The real cowboys are all in drugstores" (145). At one and the same time, he is the do-gooding sheriff, running the old "get out of town" routine with the perverse agent; and he is the outlaw himself, pursued, harassed by "the law."
For a central symbol, McGuane appropriately borrows perhaps the quintessential western outlaw, Jesse James, who intrudes into McGuane's Florida with a striking, powerful directness. Pomeroy models himself on James, lives imitatively, makes judgments based on a confused notion of James's nature. Pomeroy must convince himself that James is not alive, that he died with the blast from Robert Ford's gun; he must also convince himself that his own father in fact lives, that the physical presence who calls himself Pomeroy's father is not the manifestation of Jesse James, but is instead the very real incarnation of family. The Jesse Jameses of this republic, of our historical West, are dead; what we have as replacements are the Charlie Starkweathers. The outlaw has become the mass murderer; the myth has become the unglamorous, brutal banality.
To accept the new West, says McGuane, we must first deny the complete, continued existence of the old. He does this in his fiction, moving in and out of regions, in and out of voices, but always trailing behind him a fond remembrance of and a partial reverence for the ways of that old West. "The West," writes McGuane again in "Roping, from A to B," "is getting to be a number of things." Writing about the West also "is getting to be a number of things." There are writers who write seriously of the historical West, who examine and re-examine the figures, stories, myths of the old West, revising our sense of history. Some write of the contemporary West, in the light cast by their memory of the old West; others describe a new landscape peopled by new breeds of westerners, many of whom bear the legacy of that historical West. Still others describe new economies of being, new relationships between land and inhabitant, new histories being crafted. For these latter writers, especially. Thomas McGuane has made their work easier, in fact, made it possible. By struggling with his own ambivalence, by working through his own sense of connection and disconnection with the West and its baggage of myth and belief, and by removing the patina of our national, republican nostalgia, McGuane has opened up the West to reexploration and eventual reaffirmation by its newest fiction writers.
1. For other considerations of McGuane's use of language, see Jerome Klinkowitz's The New American Novel of Manners: The Fiction of Richard Yates, Dan Wakefield, and Thomas McGuane; and Jon Wallace's "The Language Plot of Thomas McGuane's Ninety-Two in the Shade." Klinkowitz argues that McGuane, among others, renders "the semiotics of a culture … artistically craftable by making use of the language of manners" (155). Wallace, on the other hand, focuses on McGuane's descriptions of technical tasks, seeing the technical language used in those descriptions as private "codes" that locate and reveal character.
Carter, Albert Howard III. "Thomas McGuane: An Interview." fiction international, 4/5, (1975): 50/62.
Kittredge, William, and Steven M. Krauzer. "Writers of the New West." TriQuarterly 48 (Spring 1980): 5-14.
Klinkowitz, Jerome. The New American Novel of Manners: The Fiction of Richard Yates, Dan Wakefield, and Thomas McGuane. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1986.
McGuane, Thomas. An Outside Chance: Essays on Sport. New York: Farrar, 1980.
――――. The Bushwhacked Piano. New York: Simon, 1971.
――――. Ninety-Two in the Shade. New York: Farrar, 1973.
――――. Nobody's Angel. New York: Random, 1981.
――――. Panama. New York: Farrar, 1978.
――――. Something to be Desired. New York: Random, 1984.
――――. To Skin a Cat. New York: Dutton, 1986.
Wallace, Jon. "The Language Plot of Thomas McGuane's Ninety-Two in the Shade." Critique 29, 2 (1988): 111-20.
This section contains 4,681 words
(approx. 16 pages at 300 words per page)