Something to Be Desired
Thomas McGuane at his best writes about nature and animals with Ernest Hemingway’s keen eye and about people with distinctive wit and humor. Something to Be Desired is a book aimed at the very degeneracy which, when exploited by McGuane in a book such as Panama (1978), discourages the reader and makes him feel, quite simply, bad. McGuane is not certain that he can exorcise the demon of depravity, but he sets out to look at it from a point of view at least informed by nostalgia for morality if not belief. McGuane’s eye is as sharp as ever in describing the natural world, and throughout the novel he presents Lucien Taylor, the main character, in harmony with his surroundings as an escape from the disorder of human contacts. McGuane’s writing is exceedingly clear and beautiful on such occasions, as when he describes Lucien cleaning ducks:He sat and plucked the birds, an easy job with their still-hot bodies. Down drifted and caught in the russet brush, and in a short time he had a pair of oblate units of food, the meat shining pinkish through a layer of creamy fat and pale dimpled skin.
Lucien reverences nature, but humanity, of which he is a painful example, urges only fight-or-flight emotions. For this reason, McGuane males are often vivid automatons equipped with perfunctory impulsiveness, self-mocking silliness, and high school rebelliousness. They would rather die than grow up and lead the dull life which being human requires. A reader will resist the slumming which is occasionally required of him in the tracking of such types. Do I, the reader asks himself, want to read this anecdote of Lucien and another man’s wife at the drive-in—she with her period making Lucien reluctant in his advances but still willing—and the farce of Lucien driving out fast after mistakenly depositing the woman’s tampon on the windshield of a big cowboy’s car? The question is not prudish but betokens a suspicion that the anecdote is gratuitously gross. Will the tampon dangling between Lucien’s thumb and forefinger “like a rodent” advance the story of Lucien, or is it merely registered for the sake of a good locker-room guffaw? As it turns out, on the following morning, Lucien is so “grossed out” by the event that suicide offers a plausible relief. He does not wish to live a life of dirty jokes.
In Something to Be Desired McGuane requires more of Lucien than dying to escape his monstrous failure to be pure. McGuane desires something, and Lucien desires something. The novel’s title says this, as does the epigraph from Charles Morgan’s On Retrievers:
There is no question that the dogwho is really ready for a big trialis on the threshold of committinggrave mistakes.
Lucien talks to himself about being “on trial” and “ascending to a kind of rendezvous” with himself. What McGuane desires is advancement from Lucien and development beyond the static persona victimized by bizarreness and mirroring bizarreness. In Lucien, McGuane probes at the shell of the masculine outcast, a type he has focused on before sheerly for the attractive and entertaining qualities such characters possess. From Lucien, he succeeds in releasing a flow of humanity. Lucien’s trial is not to discover how tough he is but how he will respond in the wider agonistics of relationships with a wife and son, given the allure of wildness in nature so beckoning to the potential hermit-escapist. McGuane’s problem as a novelist is to sustain development in a character.
To establish Lucien as a vulnerable human being, McGuane opens the novel with a flashback to a boyhood outing with Lucien and his father, in about 1957. The author expertly draws the pain of a boy whose childhood is presided over by faithless people constitutionally incapable of love. Lucien and his father hike in the hills around Deadrock, Lucien’s hometown and the locus of the book’s action. The father has returned from Arequipa, Peru, where he had run away from his former wife and boy, Lucien, to participate in “The World Adventure Series,” a program for male escape from stultifying homogeneity and boredom in America. Lucien wants to love this man but finds his father to be less than adequate at giving love, hung up as he is on himself, his desires, and his disappointment that life is not very adventurous. His father’s real lack, from Lucien’s vantage, is his dislike of the country through which the two are walking. To the father, they are “in the desert” and “lost” even though Deadrock’s lights are clearly visible in the distance. The father’s theatrical gloom isolates Lucien. The man shares nothing, no conversation, no stories, with the boy, and he offers nothing but criticism and ponderous announcements of guilt about “stealing” Lucien from school to go camping. When Lucien finds the campsite, his father decides to leave the tent and canned goods for whoever finds them, in order to return more quickly to a Deadrock motel and whore, whom Lucien meets in the middle of the night, waking from a restless sleep, as she is thrown out of the room by her customer. This emotional mess that Lucien has for a father subsequently reunites with his former wife, and before Lucien’s cringing gaze, they fight bloodily, cuddle, and decide to remarry. They part permanently when Lucien’s mother, instead of saying “I do,” screams that the man she loves is dead in Peru, the Art Clancy who lured Lucien’s dad there and who died from a bullet in the head at the hand of his Peruvian lover.
The phantasmagoric horribleness of Lucien’s parents is a believable depiction, and the pity one immediately feels for Lucien alerts the reader that McGuane desires to do more in the book than flaunt life’s nightmarishness, craziness, and murderousness, though these are the elements that make up the atmosphere into which Lucien is born. When the reader finds Lucien, thirty pages later, alone after abandoning his own wife and boy and abandoned by his own version of the Arequipa mistress, the reader is at least open to the possibility that Lucien’s life has taken a tragic turn. He finds himself to be an image of the father whom he found so distasteful and ignorant.
Lucien learns early that men and women lie to one another and do not love their children. In college, his model for the faithlessness between the sexes is Emily, a “raving beauty with electrifying black eyes,” who loves Lucien and a medical student. She arranges when possible for one suitor to observe the other taking the pleasure she provides. However untrue Emily may be, her shamelessness hypnotizes Lucien, and her wantonness is the equivalent of “The World Adventure Series.” Her bestial sexuality is a testing ground...
(The entire section is 2813 words.)