“I love hell. I can’t wait to get back.” These boastfully self-destructive words of Malcolm Lowry serve as epigraph to Thomas McGuane’s sixth novel, Nobody’s Angel. They offer an effectively concise reading of the book, another of McGuane’s quirky, often funny, but finally harrowing journeys into the pit. McGuane has chronicled with rich wit but restrained compassion the compelling need of his characters to embrace their own damnation in such books as his first novel, The Sporting Club (1969), Ninety-Two in the Shade (1973), and Panama (1978). Patrick Fitzpatrick, the resigned, self-betrayed protagonist of Nobody’s Angel, follows the well-worn downward path of McGuane’s earlier heroes, each of whom searches out his destruction in a perverse effort to define his existence. Although Patrick Fitzpatrick walks clear-eyed into his own hell, McGuane recounts his steps with something approaching a sympathy and regret not easily found in his earlier works.
Patrick Fitzpatrick is a Marlboro man of sorrows who suffers from the stress of “the jaggedness-of-the-everyday,” or, as he puts it, the “sadness-for-no-reason.” He fits in his rawboned fashion in the tradition of the Romantic, Existentialist hero: the social outsider, the insistent individualist, the unconfessed believer in possibilities despite the contrary evidence of the world. Patrick has recently returned to the family ranch in Montana to help his grandfather keep the property going. (McGuane himself lives on a ranch in Livingston, Montana, and much of the book’s beauty and strength comes from its sure sense of place.) Patrick has spent many years in the Army, which has proved both a duty and a haven for him. Each of the Fitzpatrick men entered the military as a matter of tradition. His grandfather, Frances X. Fitzpatrick, was a horse soldier in the last days of the Old West and the first days of the new. His father, also named Patrick Fitzpatrick, was a test pilot eventually killed in a spectacular crash. Patrick has served as a tank commander on the East German lines. Thus, the generations have moved away from the land, from nature, and into the mechanical instruments of destruction. For Patrick, the tank has served as a place of refuge. Now, thirty-six years old, given to bouts of furious drinking, he has returned from the safe, protective confines of the tank and the structured military system to the vast, unforgiving world of his past. There, he is faced with bringing order to the marginal ranch, with looking after his irascible and unpredictable grandfather, and with protecting his younger sister Mary, who suffers from “an insufficient resistance to pain of every kind.” The ranch is located in Deadrock, Montana, which, as the author explains, is a corruption of the original name of Deadlock, taken from an “unresolved” battle which occurred there between the United States Cavalry and the Indians. Deadlock or Deadrock, it is an appropriate locale for Patrick’s private battle.
It is a bewildering world in which Patrick finds himself. His grandfather succinctly describes life: “Don’t add up. God created an impossible situation.” When Mary, who has worked for a time as a prostitute, turns up pregnant in the state mental hospital, Patrick brings her home in the hope of saving her tenuously held sanity. About the same time, he meets Claire Burnett and her husband John, or “Tio,” a rich oilman from Oklahoma. When Tio learns of Patrick’s skill as a horseman, he hires him to train a stallion he owns and to look after Claire, to be “kind of a big brother to the little gal,” while he is away on business. Thus, Patrick is charged with the responsibility for two women, in addition to his grandfather and the ranch, when he feels barely able to look after himself.
Patrick feels that he lives on the edge, that there is no center to his life, that he is an “incomplete” person. He traces his incompleteness to an absence of love. His father, the dead pilot, “had farmed him out, left him as crow bait to education and family history” when he sent Patrick to a preparatory school after his son’s youthful encounters with the law. Moreover, the father, the other Patrick Fitzpatrick, had set an “impossible” standard by dying as he had, “like a comet, igniting in the atmosphere, an archangelic semaphore more dignified than death itself.” His mother, Anita, remarried after his father’s death, a further source of betrayal to Patrick. Only the grandfather serves as a link to a more substantial past, but he refuses to play nostalgia games, and his memories emerge in bits and pieces. Mary has tried to repudiate the family, but she has faced the void only at the loss of her sanity. Even Patrick has taken recourse in fantasy: an imaginary girl named Marion Easterly he created first as an excuse for his teenage wanderings and transgressions and later held as the image of what could never be in the world as he had come to know it. Marion, “beautiful in mind and spirit,” stands by him when too much reality crowds him.
Mary’s suicide, occasioned by the arrival of her mother with her second...
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