I recently enjoyed Matthew Specktor’s essay “The Slowest Moment of Your Life,” which details his admiration and awe of American writer Thomas McGuane. The essay appears in Specktor’s collection Always Crashing Into the Same Car, a collection which was lent to me by a friend who knows that one of McGuane’s early novels resides on my all-time favorite list.
I will take the opportunity to share the wildly different avenue by which I came to know, enjoy, study, and teach the fiction of Thomas McGuane, and then I’ll share the story of the heedless act of admiration I committed, which brought me briefly into contact with the man himself. The man who Specktor likens to a mountain.
So, on that Specktor and I can agree. What McGuane made of himself as a novelist and story writer in the decades since the tumultuous, drug-addled 1970s is impressive. The depths of characterization. The evolutions of style, the casual assumption of a mantle that—forget Hemingway—must have belonged to Mark Twain at one time (and perhaps passed through the hands of Faulkner and Ford). It’s easy to say that he is the kind of man that men like Specktor and I would revere (italics for derision), but it’s also well-earned on McGuane’s part.
For my part, I trust he employs many hired hands on his cattle ranch, otherwise I cannot fathom where he found the energy to produce so many excellent novels and stories (not to mention the essays), and still gain the experience to write of seemingly everything that takes place in the lives on ranchers and McLeod-ians and Livingstonites (Montana, natch) of many other sorts.
Here’s the interesting twist on my introduction to McGuane and his work: I read him for years knowing nothing of his personal exploits—the crazy true stories about wild times in Florida or his connections to legendary literary drinkers like Jim Harrison and others. Nor did I know of any of McGuane’s credentials and experience in Hollywood filmmaking (both screenwriting, adapting, and directing credits.) Later, with my fervor for his novels at its peak and a letter of mine in McGuane’s mailbox, I’d watch The Missouri Breaks and facepalm myself to find Jack Nicholson in the lead and a big supporting role for—gack!—Marlon Brando.
Okay. Now, fellow McGuane acolytes may wonder how a white guy working in lit all his life manages to not to even read McGuane until his early ’40s. Well, mostly by chance. But perhaps it says something about McGuane’s slightly below-the-radar career. Actually, I think it says more about New-York-centrism and the publishing industry, but we’ll leave that for the pundits. I’m sure I knew his name, had encountered it, as early as 1997, at which time I would have been around age 25 and working as an assistant manager at one of those used bookstores that makes its inventory from remainders and by buying heavily from the public. This was a job which in order to pay the correct amount for people’s literary castoffs, one must know the relative value, in the marketplace and the canon and in the hearts of readers, that all known writers have—or in some cases had.
I can recall shelving McGuane’s Vintage trade paperbacks, with their inked drawings of cattle heads on dry ground, a mountain peak in the distance. Montana was always mentioned in jacket copy, and you saw the word Western, and the blurbs were often by Rick Bass, who I knew as a stalwart in the short story. I’d read Stegner, so I thought I had the Western thing covered, and anyway when it came to trout fishing, Richard Brautigan had a killer take, and I somehow believed that writers from dusty landscapes only dealt with characters whose views were contrarian or harsh.
And to my credit—I’m writing about myself, why not?—thanks to my progressive liberal arts education, I read internationally. (This bit of self-flattery is written in anticipation of the failures I confess later in this story.) And so it was only some twenty years later, when I read the excellent stories that would be later collected in 2015’s Crow Fair, did I resolve to begin a survey of McGuane’s contribution to the novel genre, of which at that time I knew nothing other than what I’d read on back cover blurbs. Panama and Ninety-Two in the Shade were probably McGuane’s best-known novels, and I had read neither of them.
It’s likely that being the dedicated Virgo I am, I employed the chronological method, which I’ve tried to use in my career as a reader: that is, getting a copy of the writer’s first novel and reading it first, then of course proceeding chronology. A historical take. This luxury is something afforded to you when you have the pick of the litter of people’s literary castoffs. You might hear about Beloved, but then decide to first read The Bluest Eye. I’d done this with writers whenever possible, and with McGuane it took me to The Bushwhacked Piano.
According to Specktor, to whom I defer in these matters, The Sporting Club was published first, but TBP written first. I don’t know. All I know is, when I read TBP, I believed I was reading his “first novel.”
I immediately read it again.
One of the first things I recall saying in my recommendation of it, was that I’d never seen such technical prowess employed around such zany, colorful characters. Which really doesn’t say nearly enough. In fact, the book showed me an entirely new kind of literary prowess. It used stream of consciousness, deadpan, aloof erudition, Shakespearean sensibilities, and an at-times Vaudevillian, at-time rural, slow-witted humor.
The rule-breaking, the chaos, the high-wire act, whatever you want to call it. To me, it was stupendously loose, free and yet so precise in its laceration of types and twists on the standard literary points-of-view. Frightening forays into deranged minds. “I was the darling of the fleet,” thinks Dr. Proctor, as he drinks from the water fountain in the hall outside the operating room, washing down his last uppers. (He’s been up all night, watching bobsledding and polishing the trophies in his trophy case.)
Oh, god, I’m giggling just writing those lines.
The characters who walk on are just gems. The Episcopalian lawyer from Los Angeles who comes to defend Nicholas Payne, who’s been hit on the head with a pipe by a goon hired by his girlfriend’s father. Egdon Heath. Let’s just quote a few lines, shall we?
As well as owning the book in its first edition (signed), I own the Kindle edition, which keeps this masterpiece handy on my desktop for easy reference. (In the excerpt belong, “La” is Mrs. Fitzgerald, the mother of Payne’s beloved, Ann.)
The manner of this guy is just captured in his name, in his attire (shown later), in his every spoken word. A fetching inability. Boiled eggs for eyes.
Well, it was around 2013 when I first discovered this McGuane, and let’s just say that I immediately began showing passages in just about all my courses, off and on, for a time. I recommended TBP to certain students. I posted on Instagram that TBP was officially my favorite novel of all time. I was zealous.
But more importantly than all this, I began to feel that I would have to abandon the type of serious fiction that I’d read so much of my life, and had been known to write as well. It was like backdrops of a play had been folded down and their bare studs turned forward. The stuff of drama, the way we gather opinions about characters through their moral fibers. These fibers had their coatings stripped of their wire. Have a romp! Turn a phrase, and call a spade a spade, and touch lightly on the transparency of dramatic rhetoric. Admit, you’re telling a story here, but none of the masturbatory wordplay of the post-modernist. Blunt characters, a dryly moral perspective, and verbal acuity in even the toilet humor.
“We each of us know instinctively that hemorrhoids were unknown before our century. It is the pressure of the times, symbolically expressed. Their removal is mere cosmetic surgery.” –Thomas McGuane, THE BUSHWHACKED PIANO
Whatever that is. And that is not remark dashed of by the author in passing. He commits, devoting several chapters to the post-operative horrors that Payne endures. Which brings me to the certainty that most of all is was the character of Nicholas Payne himself that turned my crank. I’d never identified more strongly with a character than him, who entertained elaborate fantasies of his legend, yet knew he’d been an ass, in so many words.
I read the novel 5 times before I read Panama, which I did not care for. In Panama, I only looked for ways in which its main character was like or unlike Nicholas Payne, and noticed how his adventure was like or unalike Payne’s. I must say that I found Specktor’s reverence for Panama to seem far-fetched, as if he would like us to believe his own life had reached a point the same point of saturation with fame and drugs that its protagonist had. But who am I to judge–when such judgements are the foundation of the literary criticism trade, such as it is.
My friend Nick and I began to joke that I would offer a course titled “How to McGuane.” We gave ourselves nicknames with nautical flavor and joked of our weekend plans to reel in Marlin while high on mescaline and drunk on rum. The discovery of McGuane meant basically a reinvention for myself, and gave me energy, belief, hope, and excitement. A whole new kind of writer I hoped to become, no longer introspective but colorfully observant, acid-tongued, yes, but also toting the limes and salt.
It’s worth remarking that I’d also spent quite a few years fictionalizing my own trauma and pain, and badly needed to work in new modes. This was foregone by the time I became a devotee. Letting McGuane (TBP in particular) influence me gave me the freedom to work in third person about people who were off kilter, and to work towards his kind of dexterity and wit, instead of probing my own wounds, which I’d done in essays and other book length works that have not yet been made available for your reading pleasure.
I read Ninety-Two in the Shade and many other of McGuane’s novels, probably liking best The Cadence of Grass and Keep the Change, but never (until last month) The Sporting Club. I taught several stories from the 1979 collection To Skin a Cat.
I changed the example of subtext in dialogue, in my Fiction 1 course curriculum, to the line from the mother of the pregnant teen who says after a game of gin rummy that Doris must not “fritter around in the discard pile.” (The parents don’t approve of the baby’s father.) Not incidentally, but long overdue, it replaced the house-written bit about Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants, which contains characters so avoidant that one hopes significant meaning lies beneath their talk of licorice.
To exemplify internal thought, I showed students the hired hand Wayne Codd, who gazes upon the bedroom of window of Ann Fitzgerald, thinking that “when they were married, they would just constantly being going to the opera.”
Unreliable narrator—the dogs passing down the hall to the bathroom, as Payne observes from the stop of the stairs in the middle of the night.
Close point of view in third person: Payne reaching for the knocker on the Fitzgerald’s door, reading the message on the welcome mat.
In my own fiction, I began to put in references to my favorite scenes, lines, and characters in TBP. Let’s have a look at one instance of this, shall we?
Well, there’s the scene where Duke Fitzgerald, the wealthy General Motors executive who has bought up a Montana ranch, is told by his wife to go trim his nose hair before dinner. He climbs the stairs to go do the chore, only to realize…
He went back up the stairs of a house built on the ancestral hunting grounds of the Absaroka Indians, with a gloomy certainty that the rotary nose clipper had been left at home. And even though he knew it was irrational, he began to lose interest in the West. (TBP)
This moment just slayed me so hard in so many ways. It cuts the doddering old fusspot right down to the bone. Now, here’s a moment in my own novel The Mombaccus Blues Again:
“Never mind then. Forget I said anything,” Wolf said. “So how was Jerry? Did you have fun playing cards? Was there anything unusual about him?”
“Nah, Jer’s a cool cat. Got forty bucks off me!”
Wolf piloted the Fiat through Ashtabula street in a daze of speculation and uncertainty. At one time in history, a man stopped on the back staircase in a large Montana ranch house and said, “I know it’s irrational, but at this moment, I’ve lost my affection for the West.” This man’s wife had just insisted he go trim his nose hair, and he realized he’d left the electric trimmer in Wyandotte. Wolf’s existential dread was no less severe than this man’s, and by the time he reached the downtown neighborhood where the hotel was, he thought the best option might to just keep the purple womb under wraps for the moment.
Okay, so I’ve made my point about my devotion. This brings us to the next phase of the story, which I will post in Part 2.