Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1834
Tough guys, in fiction as in life, tend not to age well. It is a rule of thumb that inevitably confronts reviewers of an author such as Thomas McGuane, particularly since this new work is his first fiction since 1992’s Nothing But Blue Skies and comes thirty-three years after McGuane’s wildly successful debut novel The Sporting Club (1969). Can his outrageous, ultrahip, hard-edged, impulsive, brawling characters still charm the readers of a new millennium? The answer from The Cadence of Grass is yes and no.
The story opens, appropriately, at the funeral of one of those larger-than-life types: “Sunny Jim” Whitelaw, head of the dysfunctional Whitelaw family and soda-pop tycoon, is dead, but thanks to his last will and testament, he continues to manipulate and browbeat his heirs from beyond the grave. Specifically, he gives total control of the sinking family business to his slimy, ne’er-do-well son-in-law Paul Crusoe, who has just finished serving time in the state penitentiary for manslaughter. The family could liquidate the bottling plant and split the profits, but there is a small catch: In order to do so, under the terms of the will, Jim’s daughter Evelyn, currently separated from Paul, would have to call off her plans for divorce and reconcile with her husband. To Sunny Jim’s widow, Alice, and younger daughter, Natalie, this seems a small enough price to pay for getting on with their lives, but Evelyn, finally enjoying the freedom and solitude of running her father’s small ranch, wants no part of a marital reunion.
To the untrained eye, there may not seem many directions in which such a story line could go. It is McGuane’s sheer madcap inventiveness that comes to the rescue—comes, arguably, to too many rescues, as the energetic plot often veers from satire into farce. The evil Paul naturally has to have an affair with his sister-in-law, as well as another with his probation officer. A bizarre piece of back-story provides the motivation for Sunny Jim’s posthumous generosity to Paul. Once, on a business trip together, Jim lured Paul into an encounter with a call girl who drugged him in his hotel room so that a renegade surgeon could steal his kidney, which Sunny Jim desperately needed, not for himself, but . . . it is complicated territory, and a long story. If this sounds like a narrative thread from a novel by Carl Hiassen or Elmore Leonard, it is just a measure of the influence that McGuane’s fictional universe, with its weird mix of whimsy and tragedy, has had on a generation of younger writers.
Even throughout the excesses of the book’s first half, fans will be cheered by recurring nuggets of phrasing and observation that are solid McGuane. During Sunny Jim’s funeral, for instance: “The priest addressed his remarks to the coffin. . . . Evelyn was discomfited to recognize in the sermon whole passages from that year’s Farmer’s Almanac.” Natalie reflects on her dependable but hopelessly obtuse husband, Stuart: “It was with a rare lightness of spirit that she resolved to stop seeing Paul at least until she could dump Stuart. It would be like the release of the white doves at the opening of the Olympics.”
Part of the problem with the setup of The Cadence of Grass is foreshadowed by the writers’ workshop adage, “A novel is only as strong as its worst villain.” Paul Crusoe’s villainy is never in question, but his roundedness as a character is. His probation officer, Geraldine, observes at one point in their liaison, “There was really something infernal about Paul, but it was only this very sulfurousness that made her act so out of character and believe that they were entitled to a harmless good time together.” This explanation does not ring true. The reader never gets a sense of Paul’s evil as the kind that gives off sparks; as villains go, he is drab and one-note. He is so patently conscienceless, self-serving, and gratuitously cruel (particularly to women) that it is hard for the reader to imagine even his forbidden-fruit aspect as sufficient aphrodisiac for the plain Geraldine, much less to fathom his appeal to Evelyn and Natalie, who have been wounded for years by his faithless escapades. Paul is the proverbial charming rogue minus the charm, and despite Geraldine’s evaluation of his “very good looks, his compact physique and fine features, the particular way his black hair was combed in a kind of 1930’s look, and his quickness of mind,” his physical appearance alone does not seem a convincing enough reason for women to be falling at his feet.
However, just when the reader may be wearying of Paul’s initial novelty and the story threatens to founder, McGuane’s writerly instincts seem to propel him into a far more fruitful venue, one that makes for most of the novel’s finest moments: the developing friendship between Evelyn and neighboring rancher Bill Champion, a fatherly World War II veteran and her father’s former business partner, who not only instills in her an old-time custodial feeling for the land but also spins wonderful yarns at the drop of a hat. The interludes between Evelyn and Bill, with the author’s lyrical evocations of the Montana landscape as backdrop, give McGuane the chance to show off one of his strong suits: his enduring strength as a prose stylist, most likely the reason he maintains an enthusiastic audience into his fourth decade of publishing while numerous young Turks have burst out and then passed quietly from the scene. This is just one example of McGuane’s descriptive style among many:
When the chinook stopped blowing, it stayed still for two days. Skies were clear and the cattle scattered out to look for patches of bare ground, old grass, and a change of diet. Bill and Evelyn took their horses into the summer pasture, Evelyn riding her colt Cree, crossing drifts until the Crazy Mountains arose like a silver wedding cake to the north. From there, the water courses, tree lines on a white expanse, made spindly courses to the Yellowstone. The Bridgers could be discerned, as well as the bench of Sheep Mountain, the low-humped Deer Creeks and, to the south, the blue crags and high, dark canyons of the Absaroka. This was altogether too much for the colts, who kept trying to turn toward home and were afraid of the crowds of deer at the bottom of every snow-filled bowl. Evelyn was aware of a great weight lifting off her as they rode along. The notion of not ever going back made her smile and think of the trail: Texas to Montana and never once turn your horse around. Her happiness began to be felt by Cree, who looked eagerly in the direction of their travel while Evelyn made plans with Bill for next year, the following year, the next five and ten years. A three-mile cross fence was in the wrong place and should be moved a half mile to the east. Springs needed to be improved, salt grounds moved, pastures rested, loafing sheds built. Somehow the money must be found for the tractor they coveted, a four-wheel-drive New Holland that would let them bale wild timothy for the horses. From the ridges, they could look down into their small valley and see flocks of pigeons trading between the barn and hay sheds, wings sparkling in the brilliant light.
Far from being just an idyllic distraction from the drama’s unpleasant business of law offices and courtrooms, Champion’s role becomes integral to the plot, as Evelyn has an epiphany regarding his odd long-time friendship with her mother. Bill Champion becomes, almost effortlessly and with a minimum of sentimentality, the much-needed moral center of the novel. The reader relishes his scenes for their warmth and common sense, all the while knowing that, under the laws of literature, this puts him on an inevitable collision course with the world of the story’s dark side, Paul.
Although the second half of the book is not free of shaggy-dog plot threads, even these seem to take on a heightened focus and grandeur. It would be hard to imagine a more vintage (darkly hilarious) McGuane set-piece than Evelyn’s misadventures when, driving home at night through a blizzard after a disastrous honky-tonk date, her car slides into a ditch. Pursued by thugs through the wilderness snowstorm, she is finally rescued by a backcountry rancher named Torvald Aadfield, whose strange family includes a timid wife, Esther, and a cross-dressing, hard-rocker son, Donald. They are snowed in, Evelyn gradually discovers, with “Grandpa,” who is lying as a corpse in his Norwegian naval uniform:
Evelyn, shivering from the cold, couldn’t quite keep her eyes off the corpse, and was tempted to blame it for everything. Donald said he was uncomfortable having it lean up against the wall like cordwood and put it in a small wagon, towing it around the room looking for a better place. “I remember when the damn thing was jumping around barking orders,” he said. He looked through the room for a place to park the wagon. “My dreams change every day,” Donald was saying. “For years I’ve also had a great interest in going to Mars. It seems more and more possible. If I could hang on to my share of Grandpa’s pension and invest it wisely, I could be on one of the first trips. When I heard they’d found evidence of water there, I thought, Whoa, I could have it all: a hot tub on Mars! Here, this is good, I think. . . .” He lifted the corpse out of the wagon and stood it in an upended metal stock tank, where it took on the aspect of a roadside shrine down in Mexico.
Evelyn tried to see the merits of hot tubbing on Mars, the plains of the Red Planet all around and the troubled, complicated Earth hanging on the far edge of the void. Donald had put her in a strange mood.
The rest is a long story, but a classic McGuane “digression” that is the equal of any from the early days.
Near the end, as the forces of the book begin to resolve themselves, Champion is slowly but inexorably sucked into an ill- fated business deal with Paul and his cohorts. McGuane renders the violence of the bleak finale in a chilling, tour-de-force narrative sequence that resonates long after the reader closes the cover.
This time out, McGuane’s Wild West saga may be wildly uneven, but at its best The Cadence of Grass will not only satisfy longtime fans but, ideally, show a new generation of readers what all the fuss was about.
Sources for Further Study
Kirkus Reviews 70 (March 15, 2002): 361.
Library Journal 127 (May 15, 2002): 126.
The New York Review of Books 49 (June 27, 2002): 21.
The New York Times, May 21, 2002, p. E7.
The New York Times Book Review 107 (May 19, 2002): 12.
The New Yorker 78 (June 3, 2002): 95.
Publishers Weekly 249 (May 6, 2002): 35.
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