Thomas McGuane Essay - Critical Essays

Thomas McGuane American Literature Analysis

The novels of McGuane reflect his interest and experience in playwriting and screenwriting. He gives readers visual images of moods, emotions, and action, and he refrains from simply telling readers what his characters are thinking, feeling, and doing. His characters speak tersely and rarely say explicitly how they feel. This spareness and terseness can be confusing to first-time readers of McGuane, especially as his worldview and the antics of his characters are definitely not mainstream. Recognizing his themes and understanding his style and humor are necessary to readers’ appreciation of the richness of McGuane’s craft.

A consistent theme in all of McGuane’s novels is father-son conflict. The father is a distant figure who, although respected and maybe even loved by his son, never has a warm relationship with his family. The son, the novel’s protagonist, feels a sense of loss at not having a strong, concerned male as a guide and role model. In Something to Be Desired, the protagonist is himself a father, and he must work through his relationship with his son and try to avoid being the same kind of father that his had been. In three novels, surrogate fathers appear—C. J. Clovis in The Bushwhacked Piano, the grandfather in Nobody’s Angel, and Otis Redwine in Keep the Change—but none of these older men has the strength of character that the real, but nonfunctioning, father has. This absence of the father leads in part to the unrest and aimless behavior of the protagonist as he searches for something to do and a way to act.

McGuane sees the twentieth century United States as a “declining snivelization.” His protagonists search for the kind of America that young men used to grow up in, a lost primeval virtue that used to define American manhood. In The Sporting Club, one sees the vulgarity, weakness, and ineptness of wealthy Detroit businessmen as they pursue sport and “justice” at their hunting and fishing retreat. In Ninety-two in the Shade, Key West is filled with inept, arrogant suburbanites who demand trophy fish from their guides. Good fishing lanes are ruined by the earsplitting roar of military jets, mobile homes crowd the water’s edge, and political corruption simmers just below the surface of daily life. In Panama, Chet Pomeroy returns to Key West to find changes that represent the general changes in the United States. A family jewelry store is now a moped rental shop, and a taco stand has replaced a small bookstore.

In the following three novels, the protagonists return to the ranch country of Montana to look for the values no longer sought by the schemers of Key West and Latin America. They discover that Montana and ranching have been invaded by the same forces that have ruined Key West. Patrick Fitzpatrick in Nobody’s Angel discovers that men with Oklahoma oil money play at ranching. Lucien Taylor in Something to Be Desired becomes successful only by turning his ranch into a hot springs spa for the wealthy and aimless who travel around to the fashionable watering holes. Although Joe Starling (Keep the Change) is successful with one season of ranching, his work comes to nothing because of the scams of his uncle in a town that attaches to Joe the sins of his father. The only moral courses for these protagonists are to discover what to do by the process of elimination or to opt for lunacy.

Those same three protagonists are unable to be content with the lives they live, feeling that some romance is missing from their days. This dissatisfaction leads to aimless behavior and antics that are both bizarre and self-destructive. Patrick gives up, but Lucien and Joe find something that gives them a degree of satisfaction.

McGuane rarely comments on his characters’ actions; bizarre behavior is simply presented as it happens. Vernor Stanton in The Sporting Club foments discord wherever he is; he is also, to a degree, self-destructive. Stealing a dignitaries’ bus from a bridge-opening ceremony may seem to be no more than a juvenile prank, but it is also a comment on the pomposity of appointed officials and the ceremonies that surround them. When Thomas Skelton’s father in Ninety-two in the Shade retreats to his bed for months, he is not a typical hypochondriac; he is actually sick of the world that allows his own father to become successful through political exploitation.

McGuane’s humor resembles that of William Faulkner in “Spotted Horses,” both in its physical nature and in the fact that it is used to ridicule. In The Sporting Club, Earl Olive’s dynamiting of the main lodge, the flagpole, and the lifeguard chair sends a group of old men dashing in one direction in pursuit of the perpetrator, only to hear another blast to their rear. Wayne Codd’s ineptness in spying on Ann Fitzgerald in The Bushwhacked Piano becomes slapstick when he falls off the roof with his pants down trying to photograph her in bed with Nicholas Payne. In Something to Be Desired, Lucien Taylor’s efforts to dispose of the body of a customer who dies at his spa are hilarious to everyone but him and his employees, who become frustrated as one glitch after another prevents them from solving the problem.

The Sporting Club

First published: 1969

Type of work: Novel

Vernor Stanton and James Quinn expose the sordid origins and ancestors of an exclusive hunting and fishing club in northern Michigan.

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 challenges, the force of his personality, and the decadence of the present club members, though, change Quinn from a reluctant spectator into Stanton’s accomplice. Stanton can be viewed as a knight in shining armor whose task is to rid the world of evil. Regardless of the reason the Centennial Club was founded, it increased its holdings by driving the surrounding families off their lands, often illegally, through bribes to political figures. Memberships are passed down from father to eldest son in biblical fashion, and most of the present owners act as though they are the rightful heirs of the club’s glorious past.

Stanton’s plan begins when he gets rid of Jack Olson, the club’s manager, who has kept a perfect balance between wildlife, food supply, and hunting and fishing needs within the club’s boundaries. When Olson leaves, he hires his replacement, Earl Olive, a man he met in a roadhouse bar. Olive enters with his people—bums, bikers, and floozies—who immediately clash with the club members. In retaliation for getting his nose broken in a duel with Stanton, Olive dynamites the dam, reducing the lake to swamp, and destroys the main building, the lifeguard stand, and the flagpole. Led by the militaristic Fortescu, the prominent club members decide to bring Olive to justice themselves.

A time capsule that is opened in honor of the club’s centennial produces a photograph that reveals the decadence of the club’s founders, at which point the present members reenact the sexual circus shown in the photograph. When outside...

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