Nobody's Angel

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2115

“I love hell. I can’t wait to get back.” These boastfully self-destructive words of Malcolm Lowry serve as epigraph to Thomas McGuane’s sixth novel, Nobody’s Angel. They offer an effectively concise reading of the book, another of McGuane’s quirky, often funny, but finally harrowing journeys into the pit. McGuane has chronicled with rich wit but restrained compassion the compelling need of his characters to embrace their own damnation in such books as his first novel, The Sporting Club (1969), Ninety-Two in the Shade (1973), and Panama (1978). Patrick Fitzpatrick, the resigned, self-betrayed protagonist of Nobody’s Angel, follows the well-worn downward path of McGuane’s earlier heroes, each of whom searches out his destruction in a perverse effort to define his existence. Although Patrick Fitzpatrick walks clear-eyed into his own hell, McGuane recounts his steps with something approaching a sympathy and regret not easily found in his earlier works.

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Patrick Fitzpatrick is a Marlboro man of sorrows who suffers from the stress of “the jaggedness-of-the-everyday,” or, as he puts it, the “sadness-for-no-reason.” He fits in his rawboned fashion in the tradition of the Romantic, Existentialist hero: the social outsider, the insistent individualist, the unconfessed believer in possibilities despite the contrary evidence of the world. Patrick has recently returned to the family ranch in Montana to help his grandfather keep the property going. (McGuane himself lives on a ranch in Livingston, Montana, and much of the book’s beauty and strength comes from its sure sense of place.) Patrick has spent many years in the Army, which has proved both a duty and a haven for him. Each of the Fitzpatrick men entered the military as a matter of tradition. His grandfather, Frances X. Fitzpatrick, was a horse soldier in the last days of the Old West and the first days of the new. His father, also named Patrick Fitzpatrick, was a test pilot eventually killed in a spectacular crash. Patrick has served as a tank commander on the East German lines. Thus, the generations have moved away from the land, from nature, and into the mechanical instruments of destruction. For Patrick, the tank has served as a place of refuge. Now, thirty-six years old, given to bouts of furious drinking, he has returned from the safe, protective confines of the tank and the structured military system to the vast, unforgiving world of his past. There, he is faced with bringing order to the marginal ranch, with looking after his irascible and unpredictable grandfather, and with protecting his younger sister Mary, who suffers from “an insufficient resistance to pain of every kind.” The ranch is located in Deadrock, Montana, which, as the author explains, is a corruption of the original name of Deadlock, taken from an “unresolved” battle which occurred there between the United States Cavalry and the Indians. Deadlock or Deadrock, it is an appropriate locale for Patrick’s private battle.

It is a bewildering world in which Patrick finds himself. His grandfather succinctly describes life: “Don’t add up. God created an impossible situation.” When Mary, who has worked for a time as a prostitute, turns up pregnant in the state mental hospital, Patrick brings her home in the hope of saving her tenuously held sanity. About the same time, he meets Claire Burnett and her husband John, or “Tio,” a rich oilman from Oklahoma. When Tio learns of Patrick’s skill as a horseman, he hires him to train a stallion he owns and to look after Claire, to be “kind of a big brother to the little gal,” while he is away on business. Thus, Patrick is charged with the responsibility for two women, in addition to his grandfather and the ranch, when he feels barely able to look after himself.

Patrick feels that he lives on the edge, that there is no center to his life, that he is an “incomplete” person. He traces his incompleteness to an absence of love. His father, the dead pilot, “had farmed him out, left him as crow bait to education and family history” when he sent Patrick to a preparatory school after his son’s youthful encounters with the law. Moreover, the father, the other Patrick Fitzpatrick, had set an “impossible” standard by dying as he had, “like a comet, igniting in the atmosphere, an archangelic semaphore more dignified than death itself.” His mother, Anita, remarried after his father’s death, a further source of betrayal to Patrick. Only the grandfather serves as a link to a more substantial past, but he refuses to play nostalgia games, and his memories emerge in bits and pieces. Mary has tried to repudiate the family, but she has faced the void only at the loss of her sanity. Even Patrick has taken recourse in fantasy: an imaginary girl named Marion Easterly he created first as an excuse for his teenage wanderings and transgressions and later held as the image of what could never be in the world as he had come to know it. Marion, “beautiful in mind and spirit,” stands by him when too much reality crowds him.

Mary’s suicide, occasioned by the arrival of her mother with her second family, is the first proof of Patrick’s own failure at love. He interrupts the funeral service in an angry display of grief. “That was an unhappy girl and she isn’t going anywhere,” he tells the preacher. “She’s just dead.” Later he canes Deke Patwell, who has written a sensationalistic account of Mary’s death and funeral. “People just kind of live their lives, Deke,” he says. In both cases, there is an element of guilt in his outrage. This guilt is made clear when he faces the Indian, David Catches, the father of Mary’s unborn child. They drink together, and although the threat of violence is ever present, David compels him to admit that both of them were in part responsible for Mary’s death, but that his love for Mary was greater than Patrick’s.

Patrick’s failure with Claire comes next. While entrusting his wife to Patrick, Tio has warned Patrick against becoming involved with Claire. He assumes that Patrick will be “cowboy enough to keep it in your pants.” Nevertheless, Patrick and Claire are soon helplessly carrying on an affair, at times even in the house while Tio is upstairs. Patrick soon learns that Tio is himself insane, that his money comes from Claire’s family, that his grandiose madness in which he operates as a wheeler-dealer oil baron is a delusion in which Claire participates in an effort to protect her husband. Patrick recognizes that his affair with Claire is, in part, an effort to invest his life with some meaning, to give himself a purpose. He would like for the relationship to be crazily romantic—Claire reminds him at first of the imaginary Marion Easterly—but he also knows that consequences will follow, that people will be hurt. It is Tio who best defines Patrick’s actions. “You reach a certain age, I think, when you haven’t got your house in order and you start seeking out bad situations,” he tells Patrick. Tio recognizes better than the others that Patrick’s “sorrows” are often self-indulgent, that for all his outward cowboy courage and stoic show, he has never fully accepted the responsibilities for his careless, egocentric actions.

Tio, despite his outward bluster and crudeness, is, in fact, a more complex character than Patrick. McGuane gives him almost godlike powers, and he is a ubiquitous force in the novel. Patrick never knows when Tio’s voice will sound on the phone while he is talking to Claire, when Tio will drop out of the sky in his helicopter, or when he will simply appear in Patrick’s own home. It is unclear exactly how much Tio actually knows, and Patrick feels eerily menaced by him. He anticipates a final confrontation with Tio, or at least some form of retribution. At one point, he wonders if Tio’s arrangement were not some kind of test, an opportunity for Patrick to prove his reliability, but no such clear-cut showdown ever occurs. Patrick tries running away with Claire to a line shack in the wilderness, only to find that such escape is impossible. When he finally faces Tio, the betrayed husband seems more disappointed than angry. Shortly thereafter, Tio kills himself, sitting in his grounded helicopter inhaling exhaust while Patrick makes love to Claire in the living room of Tio’s house.

“And you thought he was a bad man,” Claire tells Patrick after Tio’s suicide. “You thought if you pushed him hard enough, he’d put you out of your misery, like your sister did for herself. But he wasn’t a bad man.” It is true that Patrick’s search for love is also a search for death, a death he himself cannot provide. He is denied the cleanness of a Western ritual showdown because Tio finds him too “pitiful.” Thus, he is doomed to drift throughout an even emptier life. With Tio’s suicide forever between them, Claire and Patrick go their own ways, Claire back to Oklahoma and Patrick back into the army, into the iron womb of the tank, and into the protective arms of Marion Easterly. He is displaced, disillusioned, and damned.

For all the tragedy in the story, Nobody’s Angel is a bitterly funny book. There is always something askew about McGuane’s storytelling. The plot is often compressed; events seem to lead nowhere. Characters’ motivations are not always clear, and the ambiguity of the author’s tone tends to keep one off balance. McGuane’s style can be elliptical and difficult, especially in his occasional wild flights of wordplay. In Nobody’s Angel, he details tragic events, but in describing these events he may revert to a hyperformality of language, an almost baroque wording to hold his readers at an emotional arm’s-length. Key moments are thus underplayed, feinted at, or distanced by the artificial quality of the language and the cool wit behind it. Still, once the nature and boundaries of McGuane’s fiction are established, a sigh can profoundly express the depths of sorrow, a blink can reveal the edge of hysteria, and silence can tell the draining horror of despair. The slightly silly sensibility that runs through the book, the ever-present awareness of essential absurdity, makes the work all the more disturbing, like a pie in the face of death.

Moreover, for all of the book’s apparent episodic randomness (and McGuane is often charged with a perverse arrogance in his often bizarre plot developments), Nobody’s Angel is a tightly and subtly constructed novel. It begins with Patrick in search of his grandfather (anticipating his later search for his sister and, finally, for himself), who has gone to try out for a role in a Hollywood Western to be filmed in Deadrock. The film is never made, and more than one critic has found the episode superfluous, but McGuane makes the point clear: “As it turned out, Patrick’s grandfather would never quite get over it. His heart was on a movie poster, however close to the bottom. There were still small wings on his shoes.” The grandfather wants to leave something behind him, something more than scattered memories and a dying ranch. He finally moves to an apartment in town so that he will not have to look at his world slowly falling apart. Later, Patrick plays a Bud Powell recording of “Someone to Watch over Me” for Mary (the irony is double-edged, since Patrick wants that kind of comfort yet fails to provide it for his sister) and confesses that he would like to “do something that good just once” before he dies. When Patrick goes to the local whorehouse looking for Mary, the prostitutes are watching a talk show on television on which the rights of the unborn are being debated. Before Mary kills herself, she carefully outlines her pregnant body on the bedsheet and draws the fetus inside the shape of her abdomen, emphasizing the life she is taking with her. Patrick’s father haunts him by dying in a fiery plane crash, and Tio, his name suggesting the idea of a patron or father-figure, dies in his helicopter. The pieces fit together with precision.

Finally, for all of the book’s wit, irony, and detachment, what McGuane stresses in Nobody’s Angel is the need for love in this vast, threatening, cold world. Patrick Fitzpatrick, consumed with self-pity, guilt, and despair, lacks the courage to find or give this love. That, for McGuane, is the greatest tragedy of all.

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 42

Library Journal. CVII, February 1, 1982, p. 273.

Nation. CCXXXIV, March 20, 1982, p. 341.

National Review. XXXIV, June 11, 1982, p. 702.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, March 7, 1982, p. 9.

The New Yorker. LVIII, March 22, 1982, p. 165.

Newsweek. XCIX, January 29, 1982, p. 72.

Saturday Review. IX, March, 1982, p. 62.

Time. CXIX, April 26, 1982, p. 85.

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