(Masterpieces of American Literature)

McGuane used the woods of northern Michigan as the setting for his first novel, The Sporting Club. The Centennial Club, founded by distant ancestors of its present members, has been the retreat for highly paid Detroit executives and their families. Hunting and fishing are the accepted manly activities, while the women and children swim and lie in the sun. Into this setting come two characters who eventually destroy the club. James Quinn, who has rescued his father’s business from the brink of bankruptcy, appears to be the ideal club member. He longs for the solitude of the woods and the established and honorable rituals of sport. He approaches fishing with care, expertise, and reverence, trying to cleanse himself of the stain of business and the attendant cutthroat competition. Returning to the club after an absence of several years is Vernor Stanton, a friend of Quinn from their adolescent days. Stanton is extremely wealthy and has cast himself apart from those who perform any of the normal tasks of upper-class American life. He wants to “make the world tense” and “foment discord.”

Stanton’s return is motivated by his desire to destroy the club and to convince the members that they are not the distinguished descendants of grand ancestors who founded the club on lofty ideals. To effect this goal, he must enlist the help of Quinn, who joined him in many a prank in the past. Quinn resists at first, mainly because he sees himself as a responsible businessman—too old, mature, and content to want to disrupt tradition. Stanton’s...

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The Sporting Club Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In the epigraph to The Sporting Club, Thomas McGuane quotes a line from Aristophanes: “Whirl is king.” Indeed, in this comic tale of the destruction of “the grandest of the original sporting clubs,” the whirl of absurdity reigns. The story’s action takes place on the occasion of the Centennial Club’s hundredth anniversary. James Quinn and Vernor Stanton, boyhood friends and rivals, join a host of other wealthy Michigan Club members for fun and games in the northern woods. Yet what promises to be a time of reunion, sport, and cameraderie turns into a bizarre nightmare of duels, dynamiting, and depravity.

Following an official description of the Club in “Blucher’s Annals of the North (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1919),” the action turns to the reunion of Quinn and Stanton. Quinn, who has recently assumed the running of his father’s tool-and-die business out of a piqued social conscience, arrives at Centennial Club for a much-needed vacation. The business itself is going well, but Quinn has difficulties managing his overbearing, error-prone Canadian secretary, Mary Beth Duncan. He fares no better at the Centennial Club, however, for upon his arrival he learns that Stanton, a dynamo of competitive aggression and sadistic practical jokes, is there with his “wife.” Their initial meeting results in a duel, provoked by Stanton and conducted in his basement dueling range, wherein Stanton’s well-aimed shot raises a welt the size of a great wasp sting over Quinn’s heart. The manner and outcome of the duel illustrate the power that Stanton has over Quinn throughout the book. Against his better sense, Quinn inevitably allows himself to be drawn into Stanton’s schemes. Quinn’s love-hate relationship with Stanton parallels that of Stanton’s “wife”—actually his girlfriend, Janey—a blonde chain-smoker of mineral-springs origins who likes Stanton’s sexual prowess sufficiently to endure his habitual assaults on her ego. Quinn and Janey on occasion appear to be interested in each other (Stanton puts a stop to any serious flirting on their part with an adeptly placed shot to Quinn’s throat), but neither can break free, and consequently both of them continue to orbit Stanton, charmed by his egomaniacal heroics.

The personal stories of Quinn, Stanton, and Janey converge with the Club’s story in a plot, masterminded by Stanton, to oust Jack Olson, the Club’s manager. A native of the region and a born sportsman, Olson embodies all the qualities that the Club members lack. Further, many of the Club’s landholdings have been acquired through legal subterfuge from men such...

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The Sporting Club Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Ingram, David. “Thomas McGuane: Nature, Environmentalism, and the American West.” Journal of American Studies 29 (December, 1995): 423-469. Ingram examines McGuane’s focus on the old mythologies of the frontier in the ecology and politics of the modern American West. Ingram concludes that McGuane’s position of these issues is complicated and unclear, alternating between the liberal, radical, and conservative.

McCaffery, Larry, and Sinda Gregory. “The Art of Fiction LXXXIX: Thomas McGuane.” The Paris Review 27 (Fall, 1985): 35-71. Illuminating and immensely readable, this focuses on McGuane’s style, themes, and comic vision.

McClintock, James. “ Unextended Selves’ and Unformed Visions’: Roman Catholicism in Thomas McGuane’s Novels.” Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature 49 (Winter, 1997): 139-152. McClintock examines the Roman Catholic themes in McGuane’s works. McClintock asserts that although McGuane’s works are not Catholic in an orthodox sense, he often investigates Catholic themes, topics, and use of language that specifically refers to Catholic matters.

Morris, Gregory. “How Ambivalence Won the West: Thomas McGuane and the Fiction of the New West.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 32 (Spring, 1991): 180-189. Excellent discussion of McGuane’s use of the “New West.” Argues that while both the language and the action of the novel illuminate Lucien’s attraction to the landscape and to the myths of the Old West, his efforts to find a place for himself in the New West require him to deny acceptance of the old.

Neville, Jill. “Getting Away from It All.” The Times Literary Supplement, May 17, 1985, p. 573. An interesting discussion that focuses not on the disappearance of the Old West but on Lucien’s “odyssey,” as he moves from being the son who refuses to put away childish things to the man who ceases being self-destructive and yearns for “health, emotional stability, and Nature.”

Wallace, Jon. The Politics of Style. Durango, Colo.: Hollowbrook, 1992. Argues that McGuane finds language “an end in itself.” Although McGuane’s characters’ words and thoughts often seem incoherent or meaningless, Wallace claims, the mixed codes in his language reflect their fragmented sense of being and their attempts to bring themselves into being in a world without style or unity. Includes a useful bibliography.