Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1826
Thomas McGuane has had several livesas a hard-living maverick, a Hollywood screenwriter, and a chronicler of life in the American West, where most of the ten stories in Gallatin Canyon take place. His work, characterized by dead-on dialogue and tongue-in-cheek humor, has become increasingly accomplished to the point where he has been favorably compared to literary giants Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner.
In the title story, the narrator, formerly a dubious peddler of satellite dishes, now presents himself as a respectable trader who is selling his car dealership in Rigby, Idaho. He drives south from Montana through the narrow but heavily traveled Gallatin Canyon with his companion Louise, an attractive lawyer whom he thinks of marrying. The narrator meets his potential buyer and attempts to force him to withdraw his bid so that a later, better offer can be accepted, but his plans do not work out. On their late return via the same treacherous road, a car persists in tailgating them, blinding him with its headlights in the rearview mirror, and the narrator takes matters into his own hands, losing Louise and perhaps his soul in the process.
“Vicious Circle” begins at the local farmers’ market amid the Hutterites and the Flathead Lake cherries, where John Briggs encounters a wide-eyed, shy young woman named Olivia, who reluctantly agrees to meet him later for a drink. A self>critical loner, Briggs is tense and awkward; he orders draft beer, she, double whiskeys. While he buys a newspaper for her, she orders a second round. After the bar manager, who obviously knows her, approaches their table to offer a free round, Briggs realizes that Olivia has downed six shots of whiskey in comparison with his three beers. As her defenses slip, she becomes more voluble, then nearly incoherent.
Because Olivia cannot find her own car, Briggs carefully drives her home in his. Her father, a doctor, settles her upstairs, feeds Briggs a tasty supper, and then proposes a demented cure for Olivia’s alcoholism: membership in Toastmasters International. Angered, Briggs leaves, but he continues to dream of Olivia. When a rattlesnake bite sends him to the hospital, Olivia, a nurse, mysteriously sedates him.
Later that fall, Briggs is invited to Olivia’s wedding to a man who appears to be wearing eyeliner. Finding himself alone in the kitchen with the groom, who orders him to leave Olivia alone (he already has), Briggs lies to make her look good. In return, she offers a well-enunciated toast, and he finds himself in a state of confusion.
The hapless Briggs appears in another story, “Old Friends,” where he receives a sudden and unwelcome visit to his summer home by Erik Faucher, a man he has known ever since they roomed together in boarding school. Briggs appears to be quite competent professionallyhe has traveled all over the worldbut his personal relationships leave something to be desired. These men are friends by proximity only, by virtue of being in the same place at certain times, as well as by the loyalty they have both been taught to accept. In reality, they do not like each other. Erik, an investment advisor at a Boston bank, has embezzled money and is a fugitive; he telephones Briggs to announce that he will be coming west to join him. He has decided to become a cowboy.
The visit is complicated by Erik’s temporary lady friend Marjorie, who is usually intoxicated but who teaches remedial geometry when she is sober. The frustrated Briggs tries to make the best of a bad bargain with these two, but his silent resentment grows. Even though he refuses to betray his so-called friend to the authorities, he certainly wants to, and he is blamed for Erik’s arrest. If this were a Bernard Malamud story, Briggs would be the schlemiel.
McGuane’s prose is generally laconic, with a tight focus and few explanations, but he incorporates lyric landscapes into his writing, even in a comic tale. For instance, as Briggs and the reluctant Erik view a small homestead cemetery, they see “needle and thread, buffalo, and orchard grass spread like a billowing counterpane around the small headstones, but shining through in the grass were shooting stars, pasqueflowers, prairie smoke, arrowleaf balsam, wild roses . . . ”
In “North Coast,” the author evokes a very different, wet, green landscape, the coastal rain forest of British Columbia. Amid the dripping moss and ferns and the harsh squawk of ravens, two drug addicts, a guide and a ski instructor, search for an ancient totem pole, a prime example of north coast native art. Their contact in Vancouver is a Sikh antiquities dealer who maintains a lucrative sideline in premium narcotics. Both searchers look forward to generous payment in heroin for their services after they reach Vancouver. There is no real plot here but more of a character study of two people on a downhill slope, well on their way to self-destruction.
The delightful “Cowboy,” which appears in The Best American Short Stories 2006, is distinguished by the narrator’s Northern Plains dialect. Here an itinerant cowhand, fresh out of jail, finds a job with a Montana rancher, whom he refers to as “the old feller,” “the old sumbitch,” oronly oncea “honyocker” (a cattleman’s contemptuous term for a farmer). His employer raises horned Hereford cattle, and the sister (a formerly beautiful, now enormously fat older woman who once belonged to a motorcycle gang“Used to she was sweet as pudding,” says her brother) takes an interest in the young cowboy. She generously supplies him with homemade pie until she realizes that the attraction is not mutual and sends him back to the mobile home out by the barn. Eventually she dies, the cowboy enters into partnership with the old feller until the state installs him at last in a nursing home, and the neighbors begin to plot. The cowboy rides off into the sunset, which in this case would be Idaho. It is a melancholy story but also funny.
McGuane presents a clear view of the backbreaking labor involved in this kind of life: building and mending fences, breaking and shoeing horses, breeding, calving, feeding, and salting the herd (maintaining the salt licks). The joy comes in the character’s language and his perceptions.
The real surprise of this collection is the novella, “The Refugee,” in which a rapidly deteriorating career alcoholic, Errol Healy, finds himself at the end of his tether. Set in Florida and the Gulf of Mexico, it is a major departure from the other stories. Errol has just lost a toe while mowing a lawn in the middle of the night to impress some woman. At the orange groves where he oversees a Spanish-speaking crew, his employer has issued a final ultimatum: straighten up or be institutionalized.
Errol has asked for and received time off to visit an elderly woman in Key West, Florence Ewing, whom he reveres as a healer and seer. She was the giver of wise advice in earlier years, and Errol hopes she can tell him what to do now, although he is not certain if she is even alive. He plans to sail from the mainland to Key West on his little yawl, a passage that allows McGuane to demonstrate that he clearly knows his way around a sailboat.
Fortifying himself aboard the yawl, Errol makes himself a drink. By the next morning he has drained the bottle and acquired a hangover and, by evening, the shakes. When he reaches Key West, he stops first at a bar where the bartender remembers him and Florence. Still believing that she alone can save him, Errol searches for her house, finds her mute in her bed in the dim living room, and begins to unburden himself.
Years ago, Errol and his best friend Raymond routinely smuggled Cuban refugees into the United States. On their last trip together from Key West to Cuba, Raymond was swept off the deck in a gale and drowned, and Errol still blames himself. The details of Raymond’s death are slowly revealed as Errol confesses to the bedridden woman. Unfortunately, Florence does not understand anything he has said, and her caretaker assures him that she will not. Despairing, Errol leaves for the house where he, Raymond, and their friend Caroline used to live, rents a room, and attempts suicide. He survives.
Errol phones his boss to assure him that he is on the way home, but he stops again at a saloon before returning to the dock, blacks out, and remembers nothing until he wakes up aboard the boat the next morning. He is already well into the Gulf Stream, headed toward Cuba or the Bahamashe cannot tell. Again he endures tremors and hallucinations, then sleeps. By the time he emerges from alcohol withdrawal, a storm is developing into a full-blown hurricane. Praying desperately to the small Cuban statuette of the Virgin Mary in the cabin, Errol recognizes that “he was guilty of everything.” Ultimately he finds himself on an unknown island, facing a new world, one entirely without alcohol.
“The Zombie” is a mildly bawdy little story featuring Dulcie Jones, an optometrist’s assistant, rodeo barrel racer, “escort girl and sometime police informant.” Her unwitting client is Neville Smithwick, Junior; she has been hired by his father, a respectable bank president and believer in fornication, to rid his son of his virginity. There are also two stories of youth recollected: the confusion of an extended Irish Catholic family in Massachusetts coping with the death of its matriarch and a Michigan boy’s test of courage as he skates across frozen Lake Erie at night and finds himself in danger far from shore.
“Aliens” follows a retired Boston attorney, widower Homer Newland, who returns to his native Montana to buy a small place in the valley. The paradox is that by returning home at last, Homer has become an outlander, viewed by the inhabitants with suspicion and mistrust. At loose ends after a couple of years, he urges a former lover, Madeleine, to visit. As she alights from the plane, he notices with alarm that her mouth pulls to one sidethe once golden girl has had a slight stroke. Theirs is no geriatric idyll. Madeleine wants to change things, like watering the plants, and Homer’s choleric daughter dislikes her immediately. Homer is another hapless soul who tries to be helpful but only makes matters worse, while Madeleine hastily flees east, leaving him even more isolated.
McGuane’s tone is usually ironic, with an undercurrent of wry humor. A favorite device is understatement, which he uses almost as much as Hemingway does, giving signals that are easily overlooked like the faded photograph on Errol Healy’s boat. All of McGuane’s peopleand this collection is always about peopleare in some way aliens, usually trying to do the right thing in a world that should be familiar but never quite connecting their desires with reality.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 45
Booklist 102, no. 17 (May 1, 2006): 72.
Kirkus Reviews 74, no. 11 (June 1, 2006): 539.
Library Journal 131, no. 7 (April 15, 2006): 69.
Los Angeles Times, July 16, 2006, p. R3.
The New York Times 155 (July 20, 2006): E8.
The New York Times Book Review 155 (September 3, 2006): 1-8.
Outside 31, no. 7 (July, 2006): 30.
Publishers Weekly 253, no. 15 (April 10, 2006): 41-42.
The Seattle Times, July 30, 2006, p. J10.
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