Social Concerns / Themes

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 360

The Bushwhacked Piano provides a rambunctious and startling introduction to McGuane's universe of social concerns. Its hero, Nicholas Payne, rejects the easy life of corporate sellouts offered him by his parents, a "declining snivelization" where daughters are sold to avoid sticky lawsuits, and the view through the company skylight reveals that one would rather be outside than in. The alternative Payne pursues, as pointed out by several critics of this novel, would seem best identified simply as "fun." Yet, there is a sense of futility in that pursuit even early on, as Payne's game of crotch grabbing on roller skates ends in the predictable spill, the victory going to "gravity."

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Despite such ominous signs, the novel marks the trajectory of Payne's gestures of repudiation, through his following the beloved Ann Fitzgerald across the country, with stops for broncobusting, punching out cowboys, and offending the parents — a litany of joyous antisocial behavior. The crucial contact occurs in his partnership with C. J. Clovis, a double-amputee con-man who convinces Payne to join him in the construction and sale of bat towers, complete with bats, to gullible communities wishing to keep down insect populations at outdoor gatherings. The phenomenology of the bat tower in this novel is itself a remarkably deft commentary on the values and blindnesses of corporate America, and a striking parody of the entrepreneurial ethic: Vastly overpriced, the towers not only play on the desire for more that plagues those who have too much already, but they also trade one affliction for another, vastly more repellent one.

Naturally, their enterprise collapses: The bats fly off, Clovis dies, and Payne is reconciled with the world of authority through a televised mock trial for fraud, and through his capture as a "cautionary monument to the failed life" in Ann's artistic photographs. The title of The Bushwhacked Piano, an uneasy conjunction of outlaw banter and staid cultural artifact, is further reflected in the last line of the novel: "I am at large." As opposed to "I am free," this final statement of Payne's condition is a reminder that to be "at large" presumes an act of criminality, and a judgment to be fled.

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