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...
(The entire section is 2297 words.)