Keep the Change
Tom McGuane’s heroes or antiheroes live in a darkly comic ambivalence, a trough of inwardness out of which they examine the world and humanity. It is as though they were born with irony sensors that filter all sensation, all presences, through their designification lenses. Thus Joe Starling, the central figure in Keep the Change, views a neighborhood in Deadrock, Montana:Plastic three-wheelers were parked on the sidewalk. A woman smoked and seriously watched her dachshund move along the band of grass between the sidewalk and the street. Another woman stood in the street and waved her husband on as he backed his Buick slowly from an old garage. At a certain point, she flattened her palms in his direction, the car stopped, she got in, and they drove off. There was a five-cent lemonade sign but no stand.
The ennui of human habitation has emasculated even the Montana wilderness. This is not New Jersey, but man is clearly too much with us. The lemonade sign has no referent; hand signals effect rituals of suburban transportation; women are surely in control. To watch a dachshund seriously requires unfathomable human capitulation. Yet the reader is not to despair. There is no energy of castigation driving the description, but rather a summons to slapstick ghostliness to invade the scene. The reader is poised to laugh, yet resists, like Joe Starling, ambivalent amid the fumes of decay.
Starling is a man who has not figured out what to do with his life. His ability as a painter he distrusts to the extreme of never painting after a brief success in New York freshly graduated from Yale University. Dazzle captivates him intermittently. He meets Astrid in Florida, she driving a convertible wearing nothing but a layer of gold paint. His dead father’s ranch in Montana renders Joe income by way of a lease payment which Joe shares with Lureen, his aunt, and Smitty, his uncle. Joe stays in Florida with Astrid and illustrates manuals for gadgetry such as a folding pocket hair dryer. Ivan, his employer and fellow Yalie, has “failed upward to a considerable personal fortune” but cannot interest Joe in full-fledged commitment to his schemes, the latest of which involves marketing a home lie detector.
When he painted in art school, Joe’s landscapes “were so austere they approached not being there at all”; he gives up painting when he realizes that he is repeatedly copying a painting he once viewed with his father in a ruined Montana mansion. At ten years of age Joe and his father stood before the fireplace of the abandoned house and examined the painting in what the young Joe took to be a unity of appreciation. “Joe had come to believe that he understood what the painter had intended and that it was still right there, perfectly clear.” Joe’s own paintings, such as the well-known Chain-Smoking Blind Man, are, he comes to believe, merely weak homages to a childish vision of meaning. The large share of McGuane’s novel is devoted to the stripped- of-meaning Joe, after he leaves Astrid in Florida and goes to Montana to run the ranch for his aunt and uncle.
The question is: Does Joe really mean anything to Thomas McGuane? Is he a seeker whom McGuane takes seriously, or merely a locus registering serious dachshund watchers, gold-flake females, and crazy entrepreneurs? Is he for real, a reasonable simulacrum of humanity, or simply an entertaining, comic fellow of the sort which readers are accustomed to finding in McGuane novels, an occasion for satire on the humdrum and a cinematic-style escapist-fantasy of a person? The answer is both—he is both to McGuane—but this leaves the reader in a quandary, forced from chapter to chapter to allow the slapstick Joe and the serious, often tearful and pained-by-life Joe to coexist. McGuane seems to have written a combination of dark comic and quest fiction, and the comic tends to erode the impetus of the Joe who poses as questioner and seeker. Also at play in the book is the tension between the zany vision of commercialism—folding hair dryers, home lie detectors—and the how—to expertise of Joe on the ranch among cattle. The cows may become part of the consumer circus when they are swallowed at McDonald’s, but alive they receive serious tending by Joe as to their health, confinement, and feeding. No McGuane irony leaks into the cattle business, which is described with loving attention and comfortable familiarity:This sale yard was a place ranchers took batches of cattle too small to haul to the public yard in Billings. You didn’t go here in a cattle truck; you went in the short- range stock truck in all the clothes you owned because the cab heater went out ten years ago. Some went pulling a gooseneck trailer behind the pickup. You could unload either at one of the elevated chutes or at the ground-level Powder River Gate, which opened straight onto a holding pen where the yard men, usually older ranchers who had gone broke or were semiretired, sorted and...
(The entire section is 2027 words.)