Ninety-Two in the Shade

by Thomas McGuane

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Social Concerns

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Ninety-Two in the Shade presents its readers with an enervated, plasticized America — "Hotcakesland" is McGuane's term — that is the logical extension of Nicholas Payne's experience in The Bushwhacked Piano (197X; see separate entry). Its hero, Thomas Skelton, returns home to Key West to escape the emptiness of the continent, but finds there only the lunatic fringe of his culture, arrayed in cheap hype and frantic consumerism. It seems entirely appropriate here that Skelton makes his home in an abandoned fuselage, next door to a flophouse where an alcoholic drill sergeant leads the hotel winos in a retching close-order drill each day: When the values underpinning cultural forms are overturned or withdrawn, only the hollow shell of those forms remains, capable of retooling for other, more dubious purposes. What figured in The Bushwhacked Piano as caustic satire is here present as a sadder, more jaded assumption — an American culture emptied of its meaning, a repository of dreams broken beyond repair.


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The film version of Ninety-Two in the Shade, released by United Artists in 1975, was scripted and directed by McGuane himself. Starring Peter Fonda, Margot Kidder, and Warren Oates, it was fairly well received by both reviewers and audiences, in part for its notable lack of Hollywood slickness and in part for the excellence of its acting, particularly by Oates in the role of Nichol Dance. It should remain of special interest to connoisseurs of the auteur theory, because it is an exceedingly rare instance of a novelist controlling both the script and visual realization of his work, and because McGuane made drastic alterations of the novel for the film version, shooting two alternative endings.

Ninety-Two in the Shade was the second McGuane work to appear on the screen: The Sporting Club became an Avco Embassy Pictures release in 1971, scripted by Lorenzo Semple, Jr., and directed by Larry Peerce. Opinion of the film is uniformly low.

McGuane has written several other screenplays. Rancho Deluxe (United Artists, 1975), starring Jeff Bridges, Elizabeth Ashley, and Slim Pickens, among others, premiered in the spring of 1975. Recurrently brutalized with the designation "offbeat," this modernized and campy anti-Western has a dedicated cult following, and is a good reflection of McGuane's penchant for startling incongruities and ethical inversions.

The Missouri Breaks (United Artists, 1976), starring Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson, and directed by Arthur Penn, followed next. Massively hyped and monumentally horrendous, this...

(This entire section contains 413 words.)

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film would leave a bad taste in the mouths of all lovers of the Western lasting until Michael Cimino'sHeaven's Gate proved that it was possible to do even worse. The script for The Missouri Breaks was published by Ballantine in conjunction with the movie, and, while somewhat disjointed, it shows that McGuane bears only minor responsibility: The more appalling portions of the film, particularly in its ending, were apparently a combination of the excesses of Brando and revisions made by script doctor Robert Towne at the behest of Jack Nicholson.

McGuane also wrote (with Bud Shrake) the script for Tom Horn (Warner Brothers, 1980), an uneven film which is notable as one of the final screen appearances of Steve McQueen. His fourth and most recent Western screenplay, written in collaboration with novelist and friend Jim Harrison, is Cold Feet (Avenue Pictures, 1989), starring Keith Carradine and Sally Kirkland. McGuane's reputation as a screenwriter in this genre earned him an on-screen appearance in the American Cinema series documentary "The Western," where he proved to be a highly perceptive and knowledgeable critic.


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Ingram, David. “Thomas McGuane: Nature, Environmentalism, and the American West.” Journal of American Studies 29 (December, 1995): 423-439. Ingram argues that the desire for a pristine nature, which is so ingrained in American culture and is viewed as somewhat unattainable, is central to McGuane’s work. His works explore the role played by old mythologies of the frontier in the ecology and politics of the modern American West. Yet while acknowledging their power, McGuane also realizes the seductiveness of urban life.

McClintock, James I. “ Unextended Selves’ and Unformed Visions’: Roman Catholicism in Thomas McGuane’s Novels.” Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature 49 (Winter, 1997): 139-152. McClintock shows how many of McGuane’s literary themes have been influenced by Roman Catholicism. He contends that McGuane’s protagonists are frequently caught in a crisis of faith, realizing that something is wrong in their lives but unable to resolve their problems without spiritual help.

Morris, Gregory L. “How Ambivalence Won the West: Thomas McGuane and the Fiction of the New West.” Critique 32 (Spring, 1991): 180-189. Focuses on McGuane’s influence in redefining the shape of the “new West” in his works of fiction. Morris discusses McGuane’s insistence on the idea of “American space,” his view of the political ambivalence of the American West, and geography working itself into fiction.

Westrum, Dexter. Thomas McGuane. Boston: Twayne, 1991. Westrum provides a brief biographical survey of McGuane’s life and then presents several critical essays on his work. A valuable resource for the study of this author. Includes bibliographical references and comprehensive index.


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