Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Something to Be Desired, McGuane’s sixth novel and seventh book, was not as well received as his earlier novels. Critics faulted McGuane for inconsistent control of the narrative, for stylistic artificiality, for “working hard” to achieve certain effects, and for depending on familiar approaches to characterization and thematic development.

Generally, however, critics agreed that McGuane was moving in a new direction. At first, Lucien seems to be like McGuane’s other protagonists. They are nonconformists seeking personal fulfillment, often through unconventional means, and their searches usually end unsatisfactorily, if not disastrously. Lucien’s problems, however, do not seem to be self-imposed. Unlike the parents in McGuane’s earlier novels, Lucien’s mother and father are unstable emotionally and financially. In addition, Lucien’s unhappiness never brings him so low that he would willingly die. His comic sense is eventually accompanied by common sense, which in this case permits him to acknowledge his need for Suzanne and James.

The most obvious characteristics of McGuane’s novels—the machismo exhibited by his protagonists, their yearning for adventure and romance, the impossibility of their finding an appropriately glamorous vehicle for succeeding in that search, the spare, tough dialogue, the particular beauty of the passages dealing with natural settings, the eruptions of violence, and the concern with place, especially Key West and Deadrock—all of these have caused McGuane to be labeled a follower of Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner. Also apparent, however, are the effects of McGuane’s early interest in the romance and adventure found in the works of W. H. Hudson and Ernest Thompson Seton, and of his study and enjoyment of the “serious” comedy of Aristophanes, Lazarillo de Tormes, Miguel de Cervantes, Mark Twain, and Evelyn Waugh. This greater comic exuberance, the softening of the protagonist, and Lucien’s belief that “anything was possible once the center had been restored” indicate why McGuane has called Something to Be Desired a “positive” novel.

McGuane’s skill at using dialogue to reveal character is apparent in the numerous screenplays with Western themes that he wrote during and after a stay in Hollywood. He is one of a number of new writers, such as David Long and Rick Bass, who are reshaping the New West as a landscape for other writers and new readers to explore. He is also a literary critic and the author of numerous essays on hunting and fishing.