Keep the Change Summary
Keep the Change is set primarily in Montana after a brief interlude in Key West and a dizzying dash across the United States. The plot concerns Joe Starling’s attempt to reclaim his family’s ranch after being unsuccessful as a painter in Florida. Starling is a typical McGuane protagonist, caught between his past and future, a man whose good intentions are often thwarted by his bad habits.
Losing the inspiration to paint and working as an illustrator of operation manuals causes Joe to feel disgusted with his rather comfortable life in Florida, where he lives with a ravishing Cuban beauty, Astrid. To escape, he borrows Astrid’s car, a small pink convertible, for a trip to the grocery store and ends up in Montana. His destination is his family’s ranch, left to him by his father and managed by his Aunt Lureen and her brother, Joe’s Uncle Smitty. The property has been leased for years to a neighbor who wants to add it to his own spread. The ranch itself is in financial jeopardy, mainly because Smitty has been siphoning off the lease money for his own use and supposedly brokering seafood shipments from Texas. When Joe returns, he rejuvenates the ranch, rebuilding the springs and fence, buying calves, and eventually selling them at a substantial profit. This profit, however, the money necessary to keep the ranch afloat, is absorbed by Smitty’s seafood scam and his general ability to run through a lot of money in a hurry.
The father-son conflict in Keep the Change is typical of McGuane’s work. Joe loved and admired his father, a distant and ruthless businessman who essentially sold out, even though he tried to instill in Joe a love of the land and a desire to keep the ranch in the family. When Joe returns to Montana to reclaim the ranch, he has to face the fact that his father was not liked by those who did business with him, and for those people the sins of the father are passed on to the son. The only real father figure Joe has had is Otis Rosewell, the foreman who supervised Joe when he was working for the neighboring rancher as a boy.
Joe courts his childhood sweetheart, Ellen Overstreet, as another way of trying to recapture the idyllic days of his past. On his return, he finds her married to his formal rival and sworn enemy, Billy Kelton, a hardworking but land-poor man who basically slaves for Ellen’s father. Joe’s relationship with Ellen is complicated by her present separation from Billy and the announcement that the father of Clara, her child, is really Joe and not Billy. The possibility of renewing an affair with Ellen leads to antic behavior, especially when she and Billy begin solving their marital problems, and Joe learns that Billy actually is Clara’s father. Joe’s antics are mild and short-lived for a McGuane protagonist, reflecting his ability to come to grips with his life.
In spite of the loss of the ranch, Joe seems to have wrested some meaning from his spiritual malaise. The novel ends, as does Something to Be Desired, on an unresolved but slightly upbeat note. This more mellow conclusion is a reflection of McGuane’s changing style; it is less flashy and exudes a degree of warmth that is lacking in his earlier novels. He has not abandoned the dry wit, terse dialogue, and powerful descriptions of nature, but in Keep the Change they are integrated into the story and do not stand out as displays of verbal virtuosity.