Thomas McGuane Essay - McGuane, Thomas (Vol. 3)

McGuane, Thomas (Vol. 3)

McGuane, Thomas 1939–

An American novelist, McGuane is known for The Sporting Club and The Bushwhacked Piano.

Thomas McGuane's The Bushwhacked Piano was not selected by The Insomniac's Book Guild. They know a book that will keep you awake when they see one. Nicolas Payne is a young man who refuses to be, unlike D. H. Lawrence, "at one" with things. He fights against life's Waring Blender, and lives constantly under its "awful shadow." Payne is a young man with awful problems and when Ann, his girl-friend tells him, "It's all in your head," it's the kind of information that he knows can't help anyone. Payne sometimes goes around "for no reason" on crutches. He sometimes hears nonexistent dogs, he never knows their number. He would like to become a legend. He carries a pistol for warmth and believes in "horses that will not allow themselves to be ridden," terror, fraud and God who's smart as a whip. He reviews his options every day and when he longs for the life inside the Waring Blender, and he does sometimes, he does not carry a pistol, and tries not to limp. What he wants out of life is something as impressive as fun. He has a lot in common with some of the characters of Wright Morris, some of the characters common in America. Nathaniel Hawthorne in Fanshawe could also have been describing Payne when he wrote: "If his inmost heart could have been laid open, there would have been discovered that dream of undying fame; which, dream as it is, is more powerful than a thousand realities." Among his realities are Ann, who, like that wonderful English rock group "The Kinks" is obsessed with photographing everyone and everything as proof of having been there, Ann's mother who owns a refrigerated, fireproof wig bank, and the "unimaginable" C. J. Clovis who erects bat towers to repel mosquitoes so that all over America people can sit outside, on warm summer evenings, and shell their peas in peace. The Bushwhacked Piano is gorgeously written, sad and terribly funny, and says a lot about love and violence in America in this, the so-called Twentieth Century.

Jane Richmond, in Partisan Review (copyright © 1972 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Fall, 1972, pp. 627-28.

Thomas McGuane is one of our best young novelists, and it's cheering to watch him approach his apogee. From the beginning, he has seemed the heir apparent of two inter-locking schools: in his conscious concern with aspects of American virility, as in his tool-like, purpose-built prose, he is a more modern, more ironic Hemingway; in his eye and ear for the perversions of American life and (hence) language, he is the successor, in narrative and dialogue, of Twain and Lardner and Richard Bissell….

McGuane's first novel, "The Sporting Club," was a rather mechanical, neat, but soulless chronicle of machismo; his second, "The Bushwhacked Piano," was a sprawling, untidy, heartfelt diagram of American alienation; his third, "Ninety-Two in the Shade," is a short, tight, dense tale of the classic American confrontation between waste of time, waste of life, and death, on the one hand, and sublime mastery of a talent, gift, skill, or trade, on the other. In short, the subject is the heights and depths of human possibilities. Thomas Skelton, its hero, is the emblem of the new race of young men who have found nothing in life to engage their intelligence, their sensibility, their American bent for the tackle and trim of a métier….

The book is a black comedy that has the grinding inevitability of tragedy…. There is a slight patness here, no doubt dictated by the classically tragic form; there is, too, from time to time, a slight didactic pomposity, as if McGuane, having learned certain cardinal lessons of life, were hastening to repeat them, with due solemnity, to us. But "Ninety-Two in the Shade" is a fine book, if less than a perfect one. More, it is an earnest of McGuane's steadily burgeoning talent.

L. E. Sissman, "Living by the Sword," in The New Yorker, June 23, 1973, pp. 88-9.

[In Ninety-Two in the Shade], McGuane finds a new occasion for his favorite theme, the perilous testing of man against man, the bonding of male aggressions in a violent rivalry that may also be a mode of understanding and even love. The theme is clear in McGuane's brilliant first novel, "The Sporting Club" (1969) …; it figures in somewhat displaced forms in "The Bushwhacked Piano" (1971)….

Clearly this is Hemingway country. Not just the he-man pleasures of McGuane's men but even the locales of the novels—up in Michigan, the northern Rockies, Key West (with Cuba just over the horizon)—recapitulate Hemingway's western-hemisphere life and works. Yet male competition—less a matter of "honor" than of instinctual commitment to what one has undertaken ("following through," Nichol Dance calls it)—makes an impressive kind of sense in McGuane. In a world where little is worth keeping, a man can at least keep his word….

McGuane's bias is aristocratic, and this marks a limitation (though scarcely a flaw) in his art thus far. His heroes are young men of family, with money behind them, who choose not to participate in privilege. Yet below them McGuane can find little but the plastic-and-neon "Hotcakesland" of commercialized America, where (Skelton imagines) everybody is named Don or Stacy and the imagination of death—the only thing left of meaning after the loss of God, country and family—is safely muffled by the consumer goods that swaddle us.

Richly as we may deserve McGuane's contempt, it does make it hard for him to write sympathetically about people who fall short of his own intelligence, intellectual sophistication and toughness. His bright, cool, ironic, literate young heroes are (one guesses) versions of the author, and they can respect only men like Nichol Dance, quiet, capable outdoorsmen unspoiled by culture, given by Nature to know what college-boy types can only gradually learn by thinking and suffering.

But there are many more Slatts than Dances nowadays, and the game-playing through which McGuane's figures of grace define themselves is essentially an upper-class privilege. Simpler people take competition more seriously and literally, and if the need to win makes the Olives and Codds and Slatts ludicrous figures to the aristocratic eye, they might still, if seen from inside, look like figures in a pathos of their own. There might be room in that pathos for some women, too, though Skelton's mother and the bewildered ex-baton twirler Jeanne Carter are at least advances from the sexual caricatures and fantasies of the first two novels.

Still, if McGuane's sympathies aren't very inclusive, he takes a step forward by subjecting Tom Skelton to an end that his earlier protagonists were allowed to evade….

Like Thomas Skelton, McGuane's America stands cut off from its history with no way to go on, and finally McGuane can weep for it a little, though not for all its citizens. In his early thirties, he is an important as well as brilliant novelist, one of our most truthful recorders of a dreadful time.

Thomas R. Edwards, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 29, 1973, pp. 1-2.

Tom McGuane's two earlier novels have had to bear comparison with everyone under the sun. Not all of [the] frantic critical gesturing was unjustified. With its hard-edged prose, its obsessions with death, guns, the outdoor life, and proving yourself, The Sporting Club (1969) did bear some resemblance to early Hemingway. Its wild, impulsive humor and persistent undercurrent of cynicism did raise thoughts of Pynchon and Céline and even Bellow. The lighter, still more deadpan tone of The Bushwhacked Piano (1971) did come close to Vonnegut and Terry Southern. But whatever the critical comparisons, the principal character in each was essentially the same….

[Just] as [the] … change in tone [in Ninety-Two in the Shade] represents a step forward for McGuane on his own terms, so too does the character of Skelton. Skelton would have liked to have been "a liberty apostle and horseman of the light, a shy delivery boy of eternity's loops." But he is not, and he knows he is not. He has had "to find a way of going on," and he has found himself a goal. He wants to be a skiff guide, to take people out fishing. It's the only thing he knows he can do half right.

That in itself is a progression from two characters with nothing real to do, but before McGuane begins sounding like a high school guidance counselor, let me say that in a way Stanton and Payne [in The Sporting Club and The Bushwhacked Piano] could never have done, Skelton has discovered death. In a very Christian sense he wants to put his life together, but at the same time he sees death all around him.

Steven Kroll, in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), October 26, 1973, pp. 92-3.

Thomas McGuane's Ninety-Two in the Shade represents something trickier [than either an absence of style or an assertion of style]: a jagged, broken flight from style. "Facetiousness," the book's hero thinks briefly, "can be a way of dancing at the edges of the beautiful; it can also be facetiousness." This is a facetious novel, full of pompous rhetoric that the writer himself is sending up….

One of McGuane's favorite tricks is to break eloquence with incongruity: "But there is a life that is not a life, in which the more adamant obstructions of the heart masquerade as loss, dreams, or carburetor trouble." Another is the cute, jerky joke: "The shadows lay this way and that, the way … six grandmothers will fall when simultaneously struck by lightning." Another is a sort of wan, casual whimsy: "He looked like a wasted rat of imprecise morals." It is all too nervous and erratic and camped up to work very well in its own right but the general patchy effect serves McGuane's intricate, interesting purposes well enough.

The language of the novel mimes gaudy American reality, is a copious parallel parody, a simulacrum in words of the tasteless shifting disorder of what McGuane calls Hot-cakesland, "American con carne." And the plot then denies all this, dissolves it into tidy elegance….

McGuane appears to enjoy the inevitability of these deaths [that is, of two of the characters], to take an aesthete's delight in the relentless, symmetrical paths which carry these men to their final encounter, and certainly the book's facetiousness reinforces this impression….

The book is a flippant, lucid, somber American allegory, and between the bleak, neat deaths of two men and the slow anarchic slither into lifelessness of the rest of the country, there is only the alert, breezy talent of the allegory's author. Facetiousness is also a way of revoking dark conclusions even as you propose them. I don't mean to say that McGuane is entirely in control of all these meanings, that his frequent ineptnesses are all part of a subtle master plan. I mean simply that McGuane mobilizes all these meanings with such verve and intelligence that the end of America can't really be as nigh as his book suggests it is.

Michael Wood, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1973 by NYREV, Inc.), December 13, 1973, pp. 19-20.

Ninety-Two in the Shade is less frantic than McGuane's last novel, The Bushwhacked Piano, but it isn't nearly as funny. A fairly quiet (for McGuane), rather disjointed affair touching on various crazies down in Key West, the book doesn't quite possess the comic energy we usually associate with its author. McGuane is a notorious overwriter, and fortunately his overwriting is generally striking and amusing (like Nabokov's). But aside from the clever prose style, there isn't much in his work to hold the reader. Granted, his comic timing is sharp, and he has a knack for getting laughs with commercial references ("Peewee headed for Burdine's and bought the complete Arnold Palmer dress ensemble"), but these talents alone can't carry the somewhat rambling, abstract books he now apparently wishes to write. His work is all style, all surface. Consequently, his characters remain cartoon-like figures, his work seems to have little point, and the reader has only style to fall back on. The background then, the comic references, the descriptions of place and of minor characters, becomes more absorbing than the foreground. The reader finds himself turning McGuane's work outside in. The new book, which at first appears to be a tight, concentrated effort, is loosely structured and goes nowhere slow. McGuane tries to interest us in his vaguely depressed protagonist, Tom Skelton, who occasionally reflects upon violence and good old Charlie Starkweather, but Skelton lacks substance and coherence. Nichol Dance, Skelton's enemy and a latent crackpot, is a bit more lively, but just as, if not more, incomprehensible. He is "off-stage" too much of the time and then is conveniently brought back on for a hurried and very pat tragic ending. Perhaps my mind was straying at the time, but I failed fully to understand the true nature of the conflict between the two men. Then again, I should have learned from McGuane's other two novels not to question his characters' nutty behavior but rather to accept it blindly. All said, I wish McGuane well for he is a quite capable and resourceful writer, and when he is funny, he is genuinely funny. In his next book, I hope that content will at last be as impressive as style. I look forward to it.

Gerald Weales, in The Hudson Review (copyright © 1974 by The Hudson Review, Inc.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXVI, No. 4, Winter, 1973–74, pp. 775-76.