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Connoisseur of Foolishness

Kevin Stevens

Cloudbursts: Collected and New Stories, Thomas McGuane, Knopf, 576 pp, $35.00, ISBN: 978-0385350211

For almost half a century, Tom McGuane’s novels and short stories have given us a profound, personal and evolving view of the American scene. His deep disaffection for self-indulgence and for what one of his characters calls “the escalating boredom of life in the monoculture” is balanced by an almost mystical bond with the natural world and an essential sympathy for the flaws of ordinary people trying to negotiate the obstacles of an American life. He is a master of describing the environments we inhabit and our odd behaviours as we inhabit them. His unmatched comic flair is revealed in elegant sentences that sound both offhand and carefully crafted. And he can be delightfully subversive.

McGuane brings to his writing the accomplishments of a renaissance man. Since the 1960s he has owned and run a working ranch. He is a businessman, a hunter, a conservationist, a member of the National Cutting Horse Association Hall of Fame (cutting is a highly stylised ritual in which a horse and rider separate a cow from the herd), and a recipient of a Heritage Award from the American Museum of Fly Fishing, that organisation’s highest honour. What’s more, he writes about these passions better than anyone. His essays on fishing and horses – collected in his books The Longest Silence and Some Horses – are lyrical accounts of nature ballasted with exact and fitting detail of craft.

I’m in no position to judge how good an angler or horseman McGuane is, but I’ve known for a long time that he is a fine writer. In the 1970s, as a baffled undergraduate at University College Dublin recently transplanted from my native Montana, I drew psychic sustenance from his novels and those of other young, irreverent American writers such as Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, and John Barth. These men wrote books that were raucous, cartoonlike, and Rabelaisian. They relished outlandish language and provocative stories. I especially liked McGuane’s 1973 novel Ninety-two in the Shade, which opens with one of the best first sentences in fiction: “Nobody knows, from sea to shining sea, why we are having all this trouble with our republic.” These were the waning years of Nixon’s reign, and McGuane’s outsized, boisterous take on the bloating of America was a welcome antidote to the slippery politics of the time.

I was also piqued by rumours that McGuane had bought a ranch in Montana – a real ranch, not a Hollywood ranch – and that he had scripted the Montana-set movie Missouri Breaks, a counterculture Western starring an in-form Jack Nicholson but ruined by a mannered, foppish performance by Marlon Brando, who played the dry-gulching regulator Robert E. Lee Clayton with an Oirish accent that would not have been out of place in Finian’s Rainbow. (Years later I learned that McGuane had written the screenplay with his friend Warren Oates in mind for the role of Clayton; the studio bypassing the star of The Wild Bunch was one of the great missteps in cinema history.) In the seventies, McGuane made a good living writing for film, and though, like James Salter, he now dismisses his screenplays as hack work, they certainly added to his mystique.

Yet even back then I knew that McGuane’s fiction was different from that of his madcap contemporaries. Emerging from the tangled surrealism and non sequiturs of his early novels were moments of stunning power and range that conveyed vulnerability and loss in a way that foreshadowed his later style, less off-centre and more consistent with the techniques of psychological realism. Consider this passage from his 1978 novel Panama:

I saw an old drunk fall in front of the laundromat at Elizabeth and Fleming. He cracked his head open and made a terrible pool of blood. Someone seemed to know he wouldn’t die of it. But I looked down through the spinning air filled with frangipani and rock and roll and saw how quickly you are alone, how that can be shown to you in an instant. I think for a long time that it was my business to drive this into relief, that this was what I did for my time, poured blood from my head so that strangers could form a circle. The immaculate dream of touching and holding was shed and I stood, an integer, not touched; for nothing but power. I couldn’t even name my dog. But there was something I wanted besides that; something as simple as 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.

Writing like this should have kept me attuned to McGuane’s progress, but in the eighties he fell off my radar. When I rediscovered him a decade or so later I found that he had matured in ways that many of my other prose heroes had not. His novels were structurally more complex, his style more controlled, his characters more sympathetic, and his comedy more humane. Also, he had published To Skin a Cat, his first volume of stories, and taken naturally to the shorter form. But he was still so funny!

And so he continues to be. Here is the opening of a recent story, “Crow Fair”:

Kurt was closer to Mother than I. I faced that a long time ago, and Mother pretty well devoured all his achievements and self-aggrandizements. But there came a day when the tide shifted and while this may have marked Mother’s decline, it was a five-alarm fire for Kurt. He had given Mother yet another of his theories, a general theory of life, which was the usual Darwinian dog-eat-dog stuff with power trickling down a human pyramid whose summit was exclusively occupied by discount orthodontists like himself. Kurt had successfully prosecuted this sort of braggadocio with Mother nearly all his life; but this time she described his philosophy as “a crock of shit.”

The distinctive comic elements that had always been in McGuane’s arsenal – the offbeat voice, the high-low blend of diction, the sly locutions and occasional blaze of vulgarity – have been put to more realistic service, supporting stories that probe at class and gender, that explore growing up or trying to make a marriage work or dealing with the challenge of earning a living or being alone. His characters, especially the men, are full of shortcomings, but we can’t help but like them. They are never flattened – on the contrary, in their frequent floundering they grow rounder and more recognisable as people we might meet and get to know in everyday life. When I asked McGuane about these changes in a recent interview, he told me:

My comic impulses have worn down over the years but I hope they haven’t left me entirely. I like to think my standing as a connoisseur of foolishness is simply more deeply buried than it once was, and less cruel – or fearful when I thought I was menaced by such things ... I suppose I’m driven by considered affection for my characters. I’m fascinated by Nabokov’s icy ability to create a rich portrait of someone he clearly despises. I don’t think I am able to create a properly rounded portrait of a genuine monster like Donald Trump. Paralysis by loathing would leave me with a blank page.

In the later McGuane, lovers tend not to be faithful, couples struggle to maintain connection, parents are often distant or unkind. But his characters do the best they can, and we admire them for it. As he told The New Yorker:

Perhaps the underlying theme [of my stories] is strategies against loneliness and its doppelgänger, solitude. We spend so much of our lives trying to understand our parents: that must be in there somewhere, too ... I’m fascinated by the way human beings go about their business despite all plausible discouraging information. Comedy provides a bit of distance from this sad business.

Though he has kept publishing novels over the years (including the sharp and funny Montana books Nothing but Blue Skies and The Cadence of Grass), the arc of McGuane’s recent career has angled toward the short story. As well as To Skin a Cat, he has brought out two collections: Gallatin Canyon (2006) and Crow Fair (2015), longlisted and shortlisted, respectively, for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. His mastery is widely recognised: The New Yorker and Granta publish him regularly, as well as the annual The Best American Short Stories. Cloudbursts: Collected and New Stories has gathered the contents of his three books, along with seven new tales – bonus tracks as it were. It is a hefty and indispensable collection.

When I asked McGuane about this shift of focus, he told me:

The novel is famously a document of a certain length with something wrong with it; that is, it’s spacious and tolerant. Today’s bulbous literary novels are remarkably tolerant of longueurs, asides and arbitrary disquisitions. That can be the virtue of novels. Not so short stories. Short stories share some of the traits of poetry, which could scarcely tolerate the liberties of novels. The standards of Flaubert – le mot juste – aren’t the ideals they once were.

The stories in Cloudbursts range widely across time and space. Some of the most moving are accounts of boyhood, which examine the variety and complexity of the world through the eyes of the inexperienced. Usually, there is an element of injustice – cruelty or disability or simple lack of parental guidance – often framed by comic circumstances. “A Skirmish” concludes with a striking moment when the poor father of boys who have been bullying the narrator takes his sons’ side, saying that in time his boys “will go where they’re kicked” while the middle-class narrator “will always have something” he can do. “Sportsmen”, written in voices that show Mark Twain’s influence, describes a boy coming to terms with the paralysis of his friend and sustaining their friendship though a shared interest in hunting. Irish readers will appreciate McGuane’s favoured rhetorical strategy of sad outcomes arrived at via comic foregrounding. “Miracle Boy”, in which a Michigan adolescent travels to Boston for the funeral of his grandmother, is full of terrific portraits of an extended Irish-American family, presumably not unlike McGuane’s own. This story – which has a real Frank O’Connor feel – is his clearest fictional acknowledgement of a heritage he conceded to me:

I certainly learned an important part of my trade reading Irish writers, especially O’Connor and the Joyce of Dubliners; and I come from an Irish-American family hell-bent on wordplay and smartass remarks. My grandparents’ house, a triple-decker in the kind of Irish neighbourhood with its own church that doesn’t exist anymore, was emotional True North for me – as well as the sometimes lugubrious nostalgia for the Ould Sod. This was a bit opaque to my grandparents, who were unilaterally excited to be American.

The stories are also unilaterally American. Unlike his nonfiction, which transports us to Ireland, Iceland, Argentina, northern Russia, or anywhere else fish populate the seas and rivers, McGuane’s fiction stays rooted in the US. “The short story is the characteristic American literary form,” he has said, and his subject matter aligns. His range comes from the variety of characters and the national landscapes he loves and describes so well, especially his adopted home of Montana and the Florida Keys, the setting for his wild seventies novels.

My family lived on the Gulf Coast of Florida when I was a boy and my impressions seem to be indelible. Ours was a thoroughly dysfunctional household and so the memories are vivid. My days in Key West were turbulent for me and for the country. When my mother died in Key West I lost the thread for a while but I seem to have found it again. I love the spaciousness of the Northern Plains and the ocean – and am somewhat bipolar in my taste for them. I love the earth but those are places where I grasp it best.

Two of the best stories in Cloudbursts are Gulf Coast stories, written a decade apart, which tell of the adventure of Errol Healy, a man fleeing the ghosts of addiction, lost love, and the death of a friend. In “The Refugee” he is on the run, sailing first to Key West, where his problems get worse, and then unwittingly into a Gulf Stream storm, where he has a long dark night of the soul before being stranded on an island of the Bahamas. McGuane’s respect for the power and transcendence of the ocean and the value of a craft that can harness a man to it sets us up for Healy’s redemption, which is the subject of “Papaya” – which also expands the refugee theme in a way that makes the combined tales’ impact even more powerful in these anti-immigration times.

The language of these stories is sublime. Here is Errol stepping ashore mid-journey:

He kept inhaling deeply, surprised after his long absence at the familiarity of Key West night air, the particular humidity, the scent of more flowers than occur in nature, salt water, and faint indications of humanity: tobacco, perfume, automotive exhaust. It was a perennial aroma occasionally subsumed by a single smell, new house paint or Sunday morning vomit. All in all, it made his heart ache.

This is writing by an artist who pays the closest attention to the physical world and, like Wallace Stevens, has the talent to render it precisely and then expand his rendering into a larger statement: that human beings are forever part of their environment and yet entirely distinct from it. Love of the earth includes understanding this ambiguous connection between landscape and people, a theme informing many of the stories McGuane has set in the great state of Montana, where he lives and where he has done most of his writing. As he told the Huffington Post:

I feel very strongly about the landscape that I live in, and I feel umbilically tied to it in a way, and to the rivers and wildlife and human populations. For some reason it’s an emotional attachment that I feel, and I don’t think I’m particularly unique in feeling that way about it. It’s a feeling that you wouldn’t strongly have living in New York. There are other things you’d love about living in New York, but it wouldn’t be the landscape, or the skyscape, or the river. All of these things are here, but the humanscape is what presses itself on you.

McGuane’s love of his sparsely populated home state and his curiosity and sympathy for its humans give these stories a unique feel. The link between interior and exterior topographies is always subtle and rich. Here is the opening to “A Long View to the West”:

The wind funneled down the river valley between the two mountain ranges, picking up speed where the interstate hit its first long straightaway in thirty miles. Clay’s car lot was right on the frontage road, where land was cheap and the wind made its uninterrupted rush whatever the season of the year. Before winter had quite arrived to thicken his blood, while the cattle trucks were still throwing up whirlwinds of cottonwood leaves, the wait between customers seemed endless. He couldn’t even listen to the radio anymore. In the snowy dead of winter it was easier somehow. Now, face close to the window, and one hand leaning against the recycled acoustic tiles that lined the walls, he stared down the roofs and roofs of used vehicles in search of a human form.

“In search of a human form” – the phrase operates on several levels, poetically rounding off this prologue to a study of loneliness, death, and the solace of old stories. McGuane is under no illusions about the muddle mankind makes of the earth, or the effects of capitalism on the balance between commerce and conservation. The regal beauty of the Montana mountains and plains is often foregrounded by the shoddy and the gimcrack, and the tension of this contrast highlights the bungling attempts of his characters to get on in the world.

In “Gallatin Canyon”, my favourite McGuane story, the narrator is negotiating several life choices: he is selling a business, bent on getting the best possible deal in spite of a prior commitment, and trying to move to a new level of intimacy with a woman he is growing to love. Unfortunately, these diverse goals get in the way of each other, and his competitive instincts ruin any attempts to impress the gal. The rift between them opens gradually as they travel to Idaho and back for the business meeting.

When Louise and I first met, I was just coming off two and a half years of peddling satellite dishes in towns where a couple of dogs doing the wild thing in the middle of the road amounted to the high point of the year, and the highest-grossing business was a methamphetamine tent camp out in the sagebrush. Now I had caught the upswing in our local economy: cars, storage, tool rental, and mortgage discounting. I had a pretty home, debt-free, out on Sourdough. I owned a few things. I could be okay. I asked Louise what she thought of the new prosperity around us. She said wearily, “I’m not sure it’s such a good thing, living in a boomtown. It’s basically a high-end carny atmosphere.”

“I owned a few things.” Right. Although, elsewhere in the story, the narrator makes clear his appreciation for the landscape and his regret at its degeneration, his actions show how much he depends on the very forces that are destroying it. This is a consistent theme throughout McGuane’s work, and he is as good as anyone at bringing to life the fundamental American sin of equating money with success. Since the beginning, his stories have been visited by freebooting Antichrists like Curtis Peavey in Panama, whose “eyes were full of clocks, machinery, and numbers”.

These are the demons of what I once called “Hotcakesland”. JM Coetzee said it perfectly: “One day some as yet unborn scholar will recognize in the clock the machine that has tamed the wilds.” The Peaveys have completely taken over our country. Scott Pruitt of the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] is pure Peavey.

The tone of “Gallatin Canyon” is spot on, and the blend of first-person point of view with Louise’s reaction to the narrator’s negotiations is sweetly judged. McGuane’s choice of narrative modes is always sure-handed; an avid reviser, he goes through draft after draft, searching “for the story emerging in [his] head and discovering the form it takes”. He has learned to trust his instincts:

It’s a bit like humming a tune until you get the pitch right and/or selecting an angle of attack. I discover a story as I write it and sometimes when I feel the energy draining from it, it’s because I’m writing from the wrong point of view. The first person approach can have an interiority not available otherwise but could sag without the bracing of greater detachment. The difference between “Nobody understands me” and “Joe was convinced no one understood him” is huge and results in almost entirely different narratives. Sometimes when changing points of view to bring a story to life, you find there was no story there in the first place.

McGuane’s narrative decisions bring to life the skewed choices men and women make because of some kink in their temperament, background or culture. The consequences can be tragic: family break-up, jail, untimely death. Or they can be simply sad. Even those people, like Clay in “A Long View to the West”, who have secure jobs or businesses (and McGuane is great at giving his characters real professions, convincingly detailed) are usually too baffled or overwhelmed to cope. The struggle for survival in the boom-or-bust West is tough:

We all live in one kind of economy or another and how we struggle with its vicissitudes is an important matter for fiction. Updike, for instance, did such a great job with Rabbit’s feckless attempts at a livelihood. Surviving in any economy can turn into a game where winning surpasses survival or even flourishing as a goal. The battle over positioning on the Forbes list of richest Americans has more to do with games and scores than anything like meeting needs. It has a poor record for producing happiness or much of anything else beyond a kind of fellowship of greed.

So what does meet our needs and make happiness possible? In McGuane’s stories it is most often nature, which is consistently posed as an alternative to ego, greed or loneliness. Here is a lovely, and typical, passage from “Hubcaps”, the story of a boy struggling with a dysfunctional home life, casual cruelty, and a friend’s disability:

In the hardwood forest, a shallow swamp immersed the trunks and roots of the trees near the lake. Owen and Ben hunted turtles among the waterweeds and pale aquatic flowers. The turtles sunned themselves on low branches hanging over the water, in shafts of light spotted with dancing dragonflies. Ever alert, the creatures tumbled into the swamp at the first sound, as though wiped from the branches by an unseen hand. The wild surroundings made Ben exuberant. He bent saplings to watch them recoil or shinnied up trees, and he returned home carrying things that interested him – strands of waterweed, bleached muskrat skulls, or the jack-in-the-pulpits he brought to his mother to fend off her irritation at having to wash another load of muddy clothes. Once, Owen caught two of the less-vigilant turtles, the size of fifty-cent pieces, with poignant little feet constantly trying to get somewhere that only they knew. Owen loved their tiny perfection, the flexible undersides of their shells, the ridges down their topside that he could detect with his thumbnail. Their necks were striped yellow, and they stretched them upward in their striving.

There is no foolishness here – when McGuane writes about nature he does so with full respect and no irony. His language is sweeping yet precise. Flora and fauna are acutely observed and accurately named. He is reverent about what the earth represents and how its sacredness is so often neglected.

I sometimes gloomily reflect that in deep time the failures of mankind are not so important. Insects are a greater biomass than humanity; maybe the future belongs to them. With so many Americans awaiting the Rapture while they spoil the earth it’s hard to be optimistic about our poor planet. The natural world is the only religion I have.

As a true religion would, nature offers not just inherent purity but also the opportunity for self-rescue. McGuane writes in the preface to Some Horses:

An embedded wish in all religions is to restore ourselves to animal clarity. Surrounded by animals, we can sometimes take the hint and feel the peace ... Horses seem to stand for freedom not just to ride out of town or toward a distant horizon, but freedom from ourselves and our imprisonment in things that take us out of our own time and place.

Yet this freedom, so lyrically defined, strikes me as less a religious impulse than an aesthetic one. We feel it in the paradoxical power of great fiction. The stories set in McGuane’s Montana or O’Connor’s Cork or Alice Munro’s Ontario dwell on the details of a particular time and place but then release us from the quotidian in a way that can only be called transcendent. They restore us to clarity. And in his stories, McGuane has found a pure form that allows him to pursue this freedom without distraction or encumbrance and to engage with readers on the most meaningful terms. “The best short stories today,” he has said,

are written by people whose interests are literary and artistic, full stop. The form seems impervious to the ulterior motives behind the swollen quality of many serious novels. A level of immediacy, the minimal scaffolding, the prospects for lyric intensity feed the hope that the reader may be a cultivated person.

The stories in Cloudbursts, which give us many such moments of lyric intensity, are McGuane’s crowning achievement (though his fishing fans would probably disagree). Yet for a full appreciation of this man for all seasons, a cultivated reader would do well to spend time getting to know his fifty years of output – the novels, the stories, the essays, the interviews. The writer and conservationist Roderick Haig-Brown, McGuane has written, tried “to define the space we give to angling in our lives, and to determine its value, by finding its meaning in his own life”. We can say that McGuane has done the same, not just for angling but for so many of the natural forces that can help us learn how to live. His esteem for the physical world and tolerance for our many faults reflect a personal commitment that finds fullest expression in his fiction, which in turn can lift us from the morass of human foolishness and, if it doesn’t solve our immediate problems, keep us smiling and give us hope.

1/4/2018

Kevin Stevens is a novelist and critic based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His most recent novel is A Lonely Note (Little Island, 2016).

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