Social Concerns / Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 775

Perhaps nowhere else in McGuane's fiction is the melding of theme and social awareness more complete than in Nothing But Blue Skies. Persistent as background noise here is McGuane's usual searing critique of the tabloid mentality of American public discourse, and its reduction of complexities of human emotion and desire to formulae of money and disinformation. But while he is as capable as ever of satirically barbed throwaways, as when he notes that "everyone in California seemed surrounded by quotation marks," McGuane's point of view on the vagaries and excesses of American social life comes not in this novel from a struggling and unregenerate outsider.

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On the contrary, the novel's protagonist, Frank Copenhaver, is already a successful Montana businessman when the novel opens. A small-scale tycoon, deal maker and speculator, with interests ranging from real estate to cattle ranching to rental car franchises to whatever else comes to hand, Copenhaver has already bought into the ethos that earlier McGuane heroes like Nicholas Payne and Joe Starling had explicitly rejected. For Copenhaver, the question is not one of a refusal to enter the world of commerce; for he is already there. Instead, it is a matter of what to do when the assumptions underpinning that world begin to fall short, when one can no longer maintain the interest or energy necessary to sustain the illusion that one's ultimate self is constructed on the making of money.

Copenhaver's best option would seem to lie between the impotent rage of his daughter Holly's history professor, who is paralyzed by the spiraling stupidity of the American people, and his brother Mike's ethic of acceptance, which would dictate that instead of decrying the selling off of timber from the family's ancestral ranch, one should come to acknowledge that the time has probably come "for Americans to learn to love pavement with all their hearts." For a while, Copenhaver clings to a Franklinesque principle of survival through sheer doggedness: "Press forward, he thought. Buy things, then sell them. Try to make a profit. Embed yourself in the robust flux, the brush-fire of commerce." And there are diversions to be found in the spectator sport of observing the machinations of really big business — NASDAQ, Pepsi, the pharmaceutical megacorporations — as his own neglected business dissolves around him. But none of this allows him an escape from the sense that "if life seemed anything, it seemed thin. It had an 'as if quality." In a world where the last surviving silver wolf is tracked by radio collar through the wild, where Sony marketing determines not just purchases but personalities, it is not merely Frank Copenhaver's fate to conceive of the world as "flat," where our last tenuous moorings to the earth are ever in danger of being severed as we fall over the side to nowhere.

Nostalgia offers no solace here, regardless of its form. McGuane's rendering of Copenhaver's peeping in windows is in this regard doubly ironic, in that, while it offers Frank a tearful vision of the loving American family that he has lost, it also extends to sexual fantasy and sheer brute voyeurism, replicating the current American belief that intrusion into private lives is an entitlement of the viewer, and thus mirroring the invasion of the personal that forms the basis of American media (and commercial) discourse. Nor is there remedy found in the collective, as the populist romance is given the lie in this novel, when two large gatherings of the populace here — one a pig show, the other a rally by rabid Montanan xenophobes chanting "Gutshoot them at the border!" — are disrupted by Copenhaver. As the town looks on in curiosity and disgust, Copenhaver must ultimately face the realization that his decline is not merely a matter of his public "business," that he is in fact "dangerously overextended," a fine metaphor for a life stretched thin emotionally, always reaching for something just out of its grasp. Only when he can admit that he feels "like a cooling asteroid in an ocean of darkness," when he can acknowledge himself as something other than a success, can reconciliation take place. His moment of "grace," his reuniting with his wife Gracie, stems precisely from her satisfaction that his love for her has "almost ruined" Copenhaver, and that this was what had to happen: The withdrawal of the religion of commerce clears a space for the rebirth of love and belonging, of home. Thus, the movement of the novel can be read as a general process of divestiture, a casting away of things, of desires masquerading as needs, to get to the place where one is indeed left with "nothing but blue skies."

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