Nothing but Blue Skies

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 327

Frank Copenhaver is a rich man’s son forced to abandon the privileged life-style for one of enterprise and labor when his father concludes that he isn’t worth a plugged nickel. Much to everyone’s surprise, the ensuing years provide convincing proof that the acorn does not fall far from the tree. The result is a career characterized by commercial innovation, financial chutzpah, and a careful attention to the cowboy philosophy of never leaving a trail for your enemies to follow. As NOTHING BUT BLUE SKIES opens, Frank is at the point where the financial rewards are many and the personal satisfactions numerous.

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But, those who race toward the stars on a pillar of fire are occasionally sent plummeting into the depths in a shower of dung, and Frank Copenhaver is no exception. Suddenly, inexplicably, his wife of many years announces the marriage is over and she’s no longer interested in salvaging anything from the wreckage. Gracie Copenhaver’s departure raises the question in the minds of many as to whether the emperor was in fact without clothes—a diagnosis which appears to be confirmed when Frank begins to match his marital failure with a series of professional misjudgments.

Soon, Frank is financially vulnerable, and his efforts to recover only serve to grease the skids of his economic slide to disaster. All is not lost, however, although it definitely appears so for most of this rather manic work. NOTHING BUT BLUE SKIES combines the outstanding qualities of Larry McMurtry and Anne Tyler in a manner which is nevertheless unique.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVIII, August, 1992, p. 1973.

Chicago Tribune. September 13, 1992, XIV, p. 3.

The Christian Science Monitor. October 7, 1992, p. 14.

Kirkus Reviews. LX, July 15, 1992, p. 874.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 11, 1992, p. 1.

The New York Review of Books. XXXIX, December 3, 1992, p. 14.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, September 13, 1992, p. 7.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, July 13, 1992, p. 47.

Time. CXL, November 2, 1992, p. 72.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, September 13, 1992, p. 3.

Nothing but Blue Skies

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1514

In an interview published in 1989, author Thomas McGuane relates how, as a teenager in the 1950’s, he had once gone with his father to inspect a neighbor’s newly constructed fallout shelter. He tells how his father considered building one for his own family but ultimately decided against doing so. “I think we’ll just stay up on the ground and take our lumps,” the elder McGuane said.

Many readers of McGuane’s generation will recall storm cellars or basements being outfitted to do double duty as shelters against the dreaded Russians’ A- and H-bombs. An even larger number of readers will confess to having stayed up on the ground to take their lumps. McGuane himself has been known to drive fast cars, consort with pretty women, and, in the past anyway, occasionally drink more liquor than the Surgeon General would advise. His fiction should be required reading of anyone who has never had the high honor of sitting astride a fine horse (McGuane has been Montana’s cutting-horse champion several times), having his or her heart stomped on by a good woman or by some scoundrel of a man, or participating in a bare-knuckled barroom fight. Those fortunate folks who have experienced all the above likely already know Thomas McGuane’s work.

McGuane’s previous novels—The Sporting Club (1969), The Bushwhacked Piano (1971), Ninety-Two in the Shade (1973), Panama (1978), Nobody’s Angel (1982), Something to Be Desired (1984), and Keep the Change (1989) among them—have been described as “macho Western fantasy,” a style for which most readers need to acquire a taste. Comes now Nothing But Blue Skies—a downright engaging novel that is clearly more accessible than those previously published.

For a novel that chronicles the downward plunge of a middle-aged man whose wife has walked out on him unexpectedly, whose business is fast failing, and whose love life consists of a series of frantic, loveless couplings with various unattached women friends, Nothing But Blue Skies is a very amusing book.

This novel is filled with wonderful one-liners. While McGuane has said elsewhere that he sometimes thinks he will yawn himself to death in Montana—what with all the “yeps” and “nopes” of the natives there—the man definitely has a keen ear for his neighbors’ speech, and he has managed to capture that speech perfectly here. When these folks speak, McGuane is clearly a good and attentive listener, and he mimics their “poor-boy” conversations over coffee in a way which must turn professional impressionists green with envy: “Why, it’s not as if we had nice childhoods, home alone sewing up prolapsed cows with hog rings and shoelaces—I’m sure you done that.” And this: “‘By the way,’ the older man said, relighting the cigarette stub, ‘I believe my dog is superstitious. This morning he wouldn’t go up to that green stock truck belonging to Vanderhooven. Do you recall Joker ever being run over by anything green or anything which was owned by Vanderhooven?’”

And then there is the setting for Nothing But Blue Skies: Deadrock, Montana, is a town of some 10,000 souls wherein some of McGuane’s earlier works have been set. Deadrock is the sort of town where the protagonist’s recently departed wife, Gracie Copenhaver, can unself-consciously operate a cafe called “Amazing Grease”; it is a place where a run-down (although historically significant) Main Street hotel called the Kid Royale can be converted into a large chicken house in order to foil the bankers who would repossess it; it is the kind of place where a born-again Christian appliance repairman by the name of “Rance” is likely to walk over and interrupt the Holiday Inn meal of the town’s leading real estate developer and the Buick dealer to protest the dirty words he has heard being used during the two’s breakfast conversation—a conversation that centers on a pornographic video the Buick dealer has recently rented.

Thomas McGuane has been compared to Ernest Hemingway—both in his personal life and in his work. The comparison reflects the fact that McGuane’s leading characters, like those of Hemingway, are generally virile individualists—sportsmen, loners, outlaws—men who drink heavy and play hard while they go about the business of battling established authority and other wrong-thinking encroachers-upon-nature. But reading this novel may just as much put one in mind of the later work of Larry McMurtry as of Hemingway. This is not to suggest that McGuane is derivative of McMurtry, but simply that McGuane’s version of the modern West and McMurtry’s have much in common.

Early in the book we learn that Frank Copenhaver has long been a free spirit:

Once when Frank worked on a road crew in Yellowstone, when he was young, a girl who looked like Lucy stopped in her convertible while a bulldozer crossed the road. They spoke briefly, Frank put down his shovel and got in the convertible. When he returned two weeks later, the job was gone.

In short, Copenhaver has chosen to live life to its fullest—to seize the day—to see to it that life does not pass him by. Readers already familiar with McGuane will no doubt recognize this to be a recurring characteristic of the folks who people his books. Fans of Thomas McGuane have come to expect that characters in his novels do inexplicable things.

Consider a couple of examples: Besides starting barroom brawls with cowpokes and engaging in spontaneous sex with his travel agent, Lucy Dyer, in the backseat of a Buick (this is not his or her Buick, but rather a stranger’s car that happens to be handy and unlocked), Copenhaver sometimes sneaks around Deadrock at night peering into windows; for reasons that remain unclear, he steals a car from the parking lot behind the local hardware store to drive to another town; and later he steals Lucy’s cowboy-boyfriend’s pickup and, when he gets it bogged down in mud, hotwires a handy log skidder to try and forklift the truck back onto solid ground (with the not-unexpected results).

Another glimpse of Copenhaver’s idiosyncratic approach to life is provided when daughter Holly, home for a visit from college, tells her father that she thinks the wake “or the funeral, or whatever it was,” that he held when her mother left was “unnecessary.”

“Did any of you wonder what that outrageous wake must have made me feel like?”

Frank thought for a moment. “Maybe we didn’t think about that as much as we should have.”

“Going down Main Street with a coffin? A loudspeaker truck playing ‘Paint It Black’ by the Rolling Stones? The pallbearers were all…bombed. Very few people in that huge crowd had ever even met Mama. Some of them believed she really died! It was a disgrace and now it has become a famous disgrace, the big event of the last ten years.”

“Well, it was a lot of fun for some people. Folks remember the good times.”

“Oh, boy.”

Indeed, Thomas McGuane’s characters are apt at times to do outrageous things. But then they are apt also to do wonderfully sane things. They are likely to go fishing, for example. More precisely, they are likely to go fly-fishing.

Some of McGuane’s best writing happens when the subject is sport. His collection of essays on sport, An Outside Chance (1980, rev. ed. 1990), ranks among the most articulate available on such diverse subjects as bird dogs, fishing small streams, motorcycle sports, hunting, and rodeo. So when in the course of the novel Frank Copenhaver retreats now and then to his favorite fly-fishing spot, those readers who know McGuane feel right at home.

The fishing scenes here are quiet and sane—idyllic, even—and readers share the joy when Frank coaches Holly into landing a huge trout:

“I’m so happy, I’m so happy!” Holly cried as Frank submerged the net to keep the trout underwater. “I never caught such a big fish!”

…They began hollering like wild hog hunters, gesturing at the sky, Frank with his fists, Holly with her rod.

“I’m the champion of the world!” Holly yelled.

And we share Frank’s sorrow when he and Holly discover later that this favorite stream has been dammed:

Frank drove Holly to her apartment. They talked very little on the way back. Frank thought that it was pretty unlucky to go fishing and find the stream had been stolen, particularly when you needed the stream for more than just fishing.

Nothing But Blue Skies is easily the most accessible of the novels produced by one of America’s best writers. Thomas McGuane has written a very fine novel, indeed.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXVIII, August, 1992, p. 1973.

Chicago Tribune. September 13, 1992, XIV, p. 3.

The Christian Science Monitor. October 7, 1992, p. 14.

Kirkus Reviews. LX, July 15, 1992, p. 874.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 11, 1992, p. 1.

The New York Review of Books. XXXIX, December 3, 1992, p. 14.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, September 13, 1992, p. 7.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, July 13, 1992, p. 47.

Time. CXL, November 2, 1992, p. 72.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, September 13, 1992, p. 3.

Techniques / Literary Precedents

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 388

Although we might place Nothing But Blue Skies in a tradition of the American novel as critique of the business ethic ranging from Henry James's The Ambassadors (1904) to The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit, its most pertinent precedents are McGuane's earlier novels themselves. The antagonism between father and son characterizing his early works appears here, but as a historical fact, absorbed by the more imminent breakup of a marriage. If this reflects a maturity in theme, it also signals a movement toward closure and resolution in structure that the earliest of McGuane's novels tended to evade.

It is still the case that we find here a narrative composed of a succession of riotous incidents, a headlong careening toward a dreaded future — Copenhaver scraping Boyd off the back of his pickup by driving it through the car-wash, spearing Darryl's truck with a forklift, hiding in a garbage can to catch a malicious bike-riding pre-teen. But the violence inherent here is seemingly random and undirected, a mixture of lashing out with a desire to escape that comically deflects the blow. Similarly, when the plot accelerates toward its ending, and Frank whirls out of control, moving from a confrontation with cowboys in the drunk tank, to one with preservationists at his Kid Royale Hotel and chicken farm, to one with his wife's lover Edward, coherence is ultimately achieved through the agency of Frank's wife, Gracie.

At some 350 pages, this novel is twice as long as most of McGuane's earlier fictions, and while the tautness of the style has not lessened, the danger of structural looseness in an extended plot of such explosive comic energy is no doubt a real one. This danger, however, is obviated by the structural device of beginning and ending at the same point. Grade's departure, and the already broken marriage that occasions it, is the precondition of this novel, stark in its lack of hyperbole. Gracie's second departure, this time with Frank beside her, ends the novel, and with it comes an understanding of the genesis of their separation which ultimately gives rise to reconciliation. In describing this narrative circle, and thus in effect ending before the beginning, Copenhaver finds, at least provisionally, an exit from despair, and McGuane finds a structuring device which permits a sense of closure, thus distinguishing the comic from the chaotic.

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