Thomas McGuane has had several livesas a hard-living maverick, a Hollywood screenwriter, and a chronicler of life in the American West, where most of the ten stories in Gallatin Canyon take place. His work, characterized by dead-on dialogue and tongue-in-cheek humor, has become increasingly accomplished to the point where he has been favorably compared to literary giants Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner.
In the title story, the narrator, formerly a dubious peddler of satellite dishes, now presents himself as a respectable trader who is selling his car dealership in Rigby, Idaho. He drives south from Montana through the narrow but heavily traveled Gallatin Canyon with his companion Louise, an attractive lawyer whom he thinks of marrying. The narrator meets his potential buyer and attempts to force him to withdraw his bid so that a later, better offer can be accepted, but his plans do not work out. On their late return via the same treacherous road, a car persists in tailgating them, blinding him with its headlights in the rearview mirror, and the narrator takes matters into his own hands, losing Louise and perhaps his soul in the process.
“Vicious Circle” begins at the local farmers’ market amid the Hutterites and the Flathead Lake cherries, where John Briggs encounters a wide-eyed, shy young woman named Olivia, who reluctantly agrees to meet him later for a drink. A self>critical loner, Briggs is tense and awkward; he orders draft beer, she, double whiskeys. While he buys a newspaper for her, she orders a second round. After the bar manager, who obviously knows her, approaches their table to offer a free round, Briggs realizes that Olivia has downed six shots of whiskey in comparison with his three beers. As her defenses slip, she becomes more voluble, then nearly incoherent.
Because Olivia cannot find her own car, Briggs carefully drives her home in his. Her father, a doctor, settles her upstairs, feeds Briggs a tasty supper, and then proposes a demented cure for Olivia’s alcoholism: membership in Toastmasters International. Angered, Briggs leaves, but he continues to dream of Olivia. When a rattlesnake bite sends him to the hospital, Olivia, a nurse, mysteriously sedates him.
Later that fall, Briggs is invited to Olivia’s wedding to a man who appears to be wearing eyeliner. Finding himself alone in the kitchen with the groom, who orders him to leave Olivia alone (he already has), Briggs lies to make her look good. In return, she offers a well-enunciated toast, and he finds himself in a state of confusion.
The hapless Briggs appears in another story, “Old Friends,” where he receives a sudden and unwelcome visit to his summer home by Erik Faucher, a man he has known ever since they roomed together in boarding school. Briggs appears to be quite competent professionallyhe has traveled all over the worldbut his personal relationships leave something to be desired. These men are friends by proximity only, by virtue of being in the same place at certain times, as well as by the loyalty they have both been taught to accept. In reality, they do not like each other. Erik, an investment advisor at a Boston bank, has embezzled money and is a fugitive; he telephones Briggs to announce that he will be coming west to join him. He has decided to become a cowboy.
The visit is complicated by Erik’s temporary lady friend Marjorie, who is usually intoxicated but who teaches remedial geometry when she is sober. The frustrated Briggs tries to make the best of a bad bargain with these two, but his silent resentment grows. Even though he refuses to betray his so-called friend to the authorities, he certainly wants to, and he is blamed for Erik’s arrest. If this were a Bernard Malamud story, Briggs would be the schlemiel.
McGuane’s prose is generally laconic, with a tight focus and few explanations, but he incorporates lyric landscapes into his writing, even in a comic tale. For instance, as Briggs and the reluctant Erik view a small homestead cemetery, they see “needle and thread, buffalo, and orchard grass spread like a billowing counterpane around the small headstones, but shining through in the grass were shooting stars, pasqueflowers, prairie smoke, arrowleaf balsam, wild roses . . . ”
In “North Coast,” the author evokes a very different, wet, green landscape, the coastal rain forest of British Columbia. Amid the dripping moss and ferns and the...
(The entire section is 1826 words.)