To Skin a Cat
From The Sporting Club (1969) to Something to Be Desired (1984), Thomas McGuane’s six novels have painted a vivid portrait of the violence and absurdity of contemporary American life. McGuane’s protagonists, men of the West and the South, are impulsive, rebellious, self-destructive. These characters consider themselves incomplete and strive in frequently bizarre ways to find something to balance their weaknesses, often testing themselves against nature, the only refuge from the insane chaos mankind has created.
To Skin a Cat, McGuane’s first collection of short fiction, presents thirteen stories originally published between 1981 and 1986 which depict some of the same concerns as his novels. The characters in these darkly comic tales either contribute to the madness raging around them or attempt to deal with it in a variety of usually ineffectual ways. Parents sell the child of their fifteen-year-old daughter to the judge hearing a negligence suit against the teenager’s father. A recent widower thinks about having an affair with a neighbor who turns out to be a nymphomaniac and rapes him. A man experiencing a mid-life crisis has a facelift and kidnaps his neighbors’ dogs. A similar character has sex with a dummy during a public life-saving demonstration. A man goes hunting while waiting for an ambulance to pick up his dead mother, ends up injured in a ditch, and rides in the ambulance next to the corpse. Newlyweds buy a house and its furnishings, only for the daughter of the previous owner to remove all the contents; in trying to get revenge, they lose more than furniture. An ambitious young lawyer discovers his firm’s most valued client is married to an old girlfriend, tries to rekindle the romance, gets into a ridiculously violent quarrel with the husband, but still becomes his rival’s attorney. A spoiled, aimless, rich brat has fantasies about being a pimp and turns the woman who loves him into a prostitute, only to be murdered by her. A man and his dying friend go hunting, and the ill man commits suicide.
McGuane’s America is a place where traditional values are constantly being debased. The man with the pregnant daughter falls asleep when she tries to speak honestly to him. He feels justified in ignoring her since she “technically. . . wasn’t his department,” daughters being the province of mothers. He also refuses to accept responsibility for the employee who loses a hand to a piece of machinery and is outraged that he is being sued: “You reach a point where you don’t know whether you’re part of what makes America great or not.” His twisted logic is that he will give his grandchild to the judge who will rule in his favor and save his company so that he can leave it to his daughter, and all will live happily ever after. Such ventures, however, are doomed since no individual can control his fate, and attempting to do so leads only to disappointments or worse. Characters fool themselves into thinking that they have found means, such as money, of imposing order upon chaos. One thinks, “There is no unhappiness at Neiman-Marcus.”
Many of the stories take place in and around Deadrock, Montana. Perhaps this setting should offer an escape from the neuroses associated with living in high-pressure urban America, but it does not. As writers from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Wright Morris have proven, chasing the American dream west is no longer possible. In “To Skin a Cat,” a spoiled rich kid from Deadrock meets the woman of his dreams in London, and they proceed to Manhattan and on to San Francisco. At each stop, their behavior becomes more decadent. Seeing buffalo in a San Francisco zoo, the protagonist feels faint confronted by what his kind have done to the West. Howard Hawks’s classic Western Red River (1948) is invoked as ironic contrast to what is happening to McGuane’s creations: Montgomery Clift and John Wayne are seen as mythic images thrown against “a big free sky,” while the characters in “To Skin a Cat” give in to the enclosing insanity in an American West light years from Hollywood’s innocent vision.
The pervasiveness of popular culture is a recurring theme in the collection. A wealthy woman living in New York’s sophisticated Carlyle Hotel dresses like Dale Evans, and a man’s honest tears remind his wife of Red Skelton’s phony ones. At...
(The entire section is 1788 words.)