Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2297
Thomas McGuane’s episodic novel Driving on the Rim describes the mid-life crisis of Dr. Irving Berlin Pickett, a Quixotic antihero with a noble heart and an irrepressible knack for getting into trouble. Dr. Pickett, who goes by Berl, is a well-regarded general practitioner in the small Montana town where he grew up. However, as he enters middle age, Berl suffers from a series of life-altering scandals. His career is threatened, his love life thrown into disarray, his friendships imperiled.
Driving on the Rim begins with a reminiscence of Berl’s youth. After an itinerant childhood during which his parents ran a traveling rug-cleaning business, Berl’s family settles in the unnamed Montana town where he will live for the rest of his life except for a time attending college in Ohio. During his twenties Berl meets Tessa Larionov, who figures largely in the scandals that will dominate Berl’s later years. Berl and Tessa both live in the former mansion of L. Raymond Hoxey, an elderly art collector of considerable means. Berl has drinks one evening with Tessa, and after their conversation takes an uncomfortable turn, their social acquaintance ends. Later, however, Tessa accuses Berl of making obscene phone calls to her apartment. When the chief of police comes to arrest Berl, Berl patiently explains that he doesn’t have a phone. It turns out that Hoxey is the guilty caller, and that Hoxey and Tessa are romantically involved. Tessa and Berl eventually reconcile, as Tessa apologizes for her false accusation, and become involved romantically themselves.
By directive of his parents—a World War II veteran father and an intensely religious mother—Berl leaves Hoxey’s mansion and moves outside of town to the ranch of Gladys and Wiley. Through Gladys and Wiley, Berl meets Dr. Eldon Olsson, who becomes a mentor and friend. In addition to serving as a model for the medical profession, Dr. Osson introduces Berl to the outdoor arts of hunting and fishing.
Berl’s varied sexual history begins when he’s fourteen, when his family moves in with an Aunt Silbie in Idaho. “I want to help you,” Siblie says to him, and their affair begins. Berl seems to think that Siblie is educating him, rather than molesting him, but his parents disagree. After catching Berl and Siblie in the act, the family flees.
Berl’s dalliances with older women continue when goes off to Calabash College in Ohio. Calabash is the alma mater of Dr. Olsson, and Berl lives in the home of some of Dr. Olsson’s old friends, Karl and Shirley Hanson. While Berl cultivates an image on campus as a hipster eccentric, around the Hanson home he flirts with Shirley. Eventually the sexual tension between Berl and Shirley comes to a head; they decide to take a vacation to Florida. As it turns out, Karl isn’t offended when he learns of the affair because he’s been carrying on an illicit relationship with the twenty-eight-year-old maid. Berl realizes that he is being used as pawn in a long-running marital conflict and disassociates himself from the Hansons forever.
The story picks up during Berl’s first year as a practicing physician, when he meets an attractive woman named Clarice. Before she becomes his patient, Berl gives Clarice a ride to the hot-dog stand where he works. Three years later she becomes Berl’s patient as she suffers from allergies. Later, Berl notices that Clarice seems to be getting abused physically. Berl asks Clarice about it. She gets embarrassed and says, “It’s not abuse if you saw it coming.”
Late one night Berl receives a call from Cody, Clarice’s husband. Berl goes over to their house and discovers that Clarice has been knocked unconscious and is nearly dead. Berl tends to Clarice, but it is no use. Cody, dazed and repentant, holds a revolver and wonders aloud whether he should follow Clarice to the grave. Berl, enraged over Clarice’s death, agrees with Cody. Not only does he agree, but he goads Cody to go ahead and kill himself already.
“So, Doctor, what do you think I should do? You’re the doctor,” Cody says.
“I think you should kill yourself,” says Berl.
Then, perhaps to Berl’s surprise, Cody fires. Berl calls the police but lies about his involvement in the murder-suicide. He says that when he arrived, Cody was already dead.
Berl continues to feel guilty over the situation, wondering whether he could have saved Clarice from her abuser and whether he should have encouraged her abuser to kill himself. But the nonstop responsibility of his profession, not to mention the chaos of his personal life, keeps him busy.
While Berl’s guilt about the death of Cody remains a secret, he finds himself blamed for the tragic fate of Tessa, his old flame and neighbor. Berl learns that Tessa has been thrown out on her own by the heirs of L. Raymond Hoxey, her wealthy lover and benefactor. She wanders about the town homeless and broke. One night Tessa comes to the clinic when Berl is working. She has stabbed herself in the stomach with a serrated bread knife. Berl figures that Tessa’s chances of survival would be better if he took care of her himself instead of admitting her to the clinic: “Though I would later have a chance to review these judgments, I honestly felt that they didn’t alter the way things turned out.” But Berl fails to contain Tessa’s massive bleeding, and she dies after four days.
The news of Berl’s potential mishandling of Tessa’s stabbing spreads around town. Although his physician friends stick by him, Berl is afraid that Raymond Wilmot, a real-estate mogul and chairman of the clinic’s board, wants to get him kicked out of the practice. Berl is not helped by the fact that he had an affair with Adrienne, Wilmot’s wife, an affair Wilmot is aware of.
Berl escapes the encroaching scandal by going fishing on a glacier reachable only by helicopter. The trip is peaceful and transcendent for Berl, but on the day scheduled for his return, the helicopter fails to pick him up. Berl is able to walk to an Indian settlement, and from there catch a bus to Vancouver. Along the way Berl learns that flights all across America have been grounded. Once in Vancouver, he learns of the September 11th attacks. Berl buys a barely functional 1988 Oldsmobile and drives home. The resilient, apparently indestructible '88 Oldsmobile becomes a kind of totemic symbol for Berl.
Berl learns that the board of the clinic has begun an internal malpractice investigation into his treatment of Tessa. Berl knows that with Wilmot at the lead, the investigation will likely end in a lawsuit: “Raymond Wilmot had it in for me. He took a very traditional view of his situation and by all reports threw himself into a cuckold’s rage.” But Bearl refuses to let the investigation bother him or take any of his time and instead devotes himself to his work.
Meanwhile Berl’s father is dying. Berl’s mother, a religious fanatic, has already passed. Berl and his father aren’t close; his father never joined his wife in her religious activities and spent most of his time with his old WWII buddies. In one of their final conversations, Berl’s father admits to his son that he deserted from World War II: “Don’t get me wrong, I loved killing Germans, but when I saw all these bodies, they didn’t seem to be Germans particularly. Some of them were too young to be in this at all,” he explains. Berl is surprised and touched by his father’s admission, and his father’s secret crime leads to careful self-examination.
Although the malpractice investigation stalls, Berl’s relationship with his colleagues seems to be permanently ruined. His only friend left is Jinx Mayhall, a pediatrician who loves to have dinner with Berl and take him on hikes.
One day, while Berl is taking a drive through the countryside, he comes upon a crashed cropduster. Berl rescues the female pilot from the wreckage. He finds the pilot, Jocelyn, attractive, and starts to visit her at the hospital. Jocelyn is mysterious about who she is and she won’t commit to Berl.
Berl receives more bad news when he is visited by a policemen and arrested for negligence in the death of Tessa Larionov. Out on bail, Berl goes back to work, but he can’t forget Cody’s suicide, and somehow conflates Tessa’s accidental death with Cody’s purposeful death: “I was, of course, guilty of the crime, but the victim wasn’t Tessa.” Berl is suspended from work, and resigns himself to his fate. Berl wants to plead “no contest” to the charges, but his lawyer won’t hear of it.
Jocelyn, the pilot Berl rescued, returns to town occasionally to take care of her dead parents' home. Berl and Jocelyn date, but their interactions are strange. Jocelyn acts indifferent to Berl’s affections even during sex, and Berl falls deeper in love even though he knows it’s not a good idea. Jocelyn has a male friend named Womack, whose relationship to Jocelyn is frustratingly vague. Womack refuses to be specific about what he does for a living, claiming only to be in “import/export.”
As the pre-trial activities proceed slowly, the behavior of Berl’s lawyer, Niles Throckmorton, becomes increasingly erratic. Niles is overweight, sleeps rarely, and drinks heavily. Eventually Niles’s obesity and alcoholism catch up to him, and he dies suddenly. Berl’s new counsel is a young, energetic lawyer named Donald Sanchez. After doing some research on his predecessor and getting himself up to speed on the case, Sanchez tells Berl that Throckmorton had had a relationship with Tessa. The trial takes another surprising turn when Berl learns that he has a history with the judge. When he was a young man painting houses for a living, Berl had been hired by the judge to paint a house for his secretary, with whom he was having an affair. But the judge never paid Berl what he owed him. When confronted with this information, as well as Sanchez’s discovery about Niles and Tessa, Judge Lauderdale dismisses the malpractice charge.
The clearing of his name should be cause for celebration, but Berl continues to be haunted by Cody’s suicide: “I had to do something about my real crime. My so-called innocence had no more than isolated the problem.” Berl arranges to meet Cody’s mother and attempt a confession. It turns out that Cody’s mother, Deanne, was an old friend of Tessa’s. Disturbed that Cody and Tessa have once again become entwined, Berl tries to steer the conversation back to Cody, but Deanne wants to talk about Tessa. Eventually Berl explains that the story he gave to the police about finding Cody dead was untrue, and he tells Deanne about how he told Cody to kill himself. Deannie is shocked, not surprisingly. She cries for a moment, then reaches into her purse for a knife and stabs Berl.
Berl wakes up in the hospital. He decides not to tell the police the truth about who stabbed him, however, and instead makes up a story about being stabbed by a robber. When asked to describe the assailant, Berl lists the physical attributes of Womack, Jocelyn’s mysterious associate.
After Berl has been home from the hospital for a few days, he is visited by a furious Jocelyn. “They’ve arrested Womack!” Jocelyn says, “You described him perfectly.”
Berl goes to the police station and tells the officer that Womack is not the man who attacked him. But in tracking down Womack, the police discovered that he is a wanted man in Texas and so they turn him over to the Texas authorities.
Even though she is apparently infuriated with Berl, Jocelyn asks him to meet her at a motel. After they spend the night together, Jocelyn asks innocently if Berl would like to take a ride in her plane. Berl agrees, and they light out into the vast Montana sky. Although Jocelyn claims to be taking Berl on a directionless jaunt, it becomes clear that she is aiming for a specific destination. They land in a secluded canyon and Jocelyn leads Berl to a canvas shelter in the shade of a canyon wall. Womack is hiding here; he tells Berl that his leg is broken. Womack is on the run and Jocelyn wants Berl to treat him. Berl has no choice and agrees.
After Jocelyn takes him home, Berl expects to hear from her and be asked to visit Womack again, but she doesn’t contact him. Berl spends more time with his friend Jinx, who takes him bird-watching and on hikes. Reinstated at the clinic, Berl devotes himself once again to practicing medicine.
Even though he should be relieved to be rid of Jocelyn, Berl’s love for the wayward pilot dogs him. Forlorn over her absence, he hopes to confide in Jinx. But Jinx has no interest in hearing about Jocelyn; in fact, Berl’s confession offends her.
Finally Jocelyn shows up. Jocelyn tells Berl that she’s “fixing to head on down the line.” She admits that she and Womack were involved in illegal activities, but says that’s all past her now.
Eventually the truth becomes apparent to Berl: he and Jinx are in love. He and Jinx move in together and are finally happy. One morning, Jinx reads to Berl an item from the newspaper: in a nearby canyon, hunters have found the remains of a man with his leg in a cast.
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