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...
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