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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 642

McGuane used the woods of northern Michigan as the setting for his first novel, The Sporting Club. The Centennial Club, founded by distant ancestors of its present members, has been the retreat for highly paid Detroit executives and their families. Hunting and fishing are the accepted manly activities, while the women and children swim and lie in the sun. Into this setting come two characters who eventually destroy the club. James Quinn, who has rescued his father’s business from the brink of bankruptcy, appears to be the ideal club member. He longs for the solitude of the woods and the established and honorable rituals of sport. He approaches fishing with care, expertise, and reverence, trying to cleanse himself of the stain of business and the attendant cutthroat competition. Returning to the club after an absence of several years is Vernor Stanton, a friend of Quinn from their adolescent days. Stanton is extremely wealthy and has cast himself apart from those who perform any of the normal tasks of upper-class American life. He wants to “make the world tense” and “foment discord.”

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Stanton’s return is motivated by his desire to destroy the club and to convince the members that they are not the distinguished descendants of grand ancestors who founded the club on lofty ideals. To effect this goal, he must enlist the help of Quinn, who joined him in many a prank in the past. Quinn resists at first, mainly because he sees himself as a responsible businessman—too old, mature, and content to want to disrupt tradition. Stanton’s challenges, the force of his personality, and the decadence of the present club members, though, change Quinn from a reluctant spectator into Stanton’s accomplice. Stanton can be viewed as a knight in shining armor whose task is to rid the world of evil. Regardless of the reason the Centennial Club was founded, it increased its holdings by driving the surrounding families off their lands, often illegally, through bribes to political figures. Memberships are passed down from father to eldest son in biblical fashion, and most of the present owners act as though they are the rightful heirs of the club’s glorious past.

Stanton’s plan begins when he gets rid of Jack Olson, the club’s manager, who has kept a perfect balance between wildlife, food supply, and hunting and fishing needs within the club’s boundaries. When Olson leaves, he hires his replacement, Earl Olive, a man he met in a roadhouse bar. Olive enters with his people—bums, bikers, and floozies—who immediately clash with the club members. In retaliation for getting his nose broken in a duel with Stanton, Olive dynamites the dam, reducing the lake to swamp, and destroys the main building, the lifeguard stand, and the flagpole. Led by the militaristic Fortescu, the prominent club members decide to bring Olive to justice themselves.

A time capsule that is opened in honor of the club’s centennial produces a photograph that reveals the decadence of the club’s founders, at which point the present members reenact the sexual circus shown in the photograph. When outside authorities finally arrive to restore some semblance of order, Quinn is the only one sane enough to explain what happened. As an acknowledgment of its total destruction, the Centennial Club is put up for sale. Stanton immediately buys it, deeds Quinn’s house to him, and uses the club for his own retreat.

In many ways The Sporting Club reflects the decadence of society in the same way that William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) does. Once they decide to solve the Olive problem themselves and shut out any outside help, the club members become irrational, authoritarian, and cruel. By the end, the club members and Olive’s people are indistinguishable in their squalor and misuse of authority.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1075

In the epigraph to The Sporting Club, Thomas McGuane quotes a line from Aristophanes: “Whirl is king.” Indeed, in this comic tale of the destruction of “the grandest of the original sporting clubs,” the whirl of absurdity reigns. The story’s action takes place on the occasion of the Centennial Club’s hundredth anniversary. James Quinn and Vernor Stanton, boyhood friends and rivals, join a host of other wealthy Michigan Club members for fun and games in the northern woods. Yet what promises to be a time of reunion, sport, and cameraderie turns into a bizarre nightmare of duels, dynamiting, and depravity.

Following an official description of the Club in “Blucher’s Annals of the North (Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1919),” the action turns to the reunion of Quinn and Stanton. Quinn, who has recently assumed the running of his father’s tool-and-die business out of a piqued social conscience, arrives at Centennial Club for a much-needed vacation. The business itself is going well, but Quinn has difficulties managing his overbearing, error-prone Canadian secretary, Mary Beth Duncan. He fares no better at the Centennial Club, however, for upon his arrival he learns that Stanton, a dynamo of competitive aggression and sadistic practical jokes, is there with his “wife.” Their initial meeting results in a duel, provoked by Stanton and conducted in his basement dueling range, wherein Stanton’s well-aimed shot raises a welt the size of a great wasp sting over Quinn’s heart. The manner and outcome of the duel illustrate the power that Stanton has over Quinn throughout the book. Against his better sense, Quinn inevitably allows himself to be drawn into Stanton’s schemes. Quinn’s love-hate relationship with Stanton parallels that of Stanton’s “wife”—actually his girlfriend, Janey—a blonde chain-smoker of mineral-springs origins who likes Stanton’s sexual prowess sufficiently to endure his habitual assaults on her ego. Quinn and Janey on occasion appear to be interested in each other (Stanton puts a stop to any serious flirting on their part with an adeptly placed shot to Quinn’s throat), but neither can break free, and consequently both of them continue to orbit Stanton, charmed by his egomaniacal heroics.

The personal stories of Quinn, Stanton, and Janey converge with the Club’s story in a plot, masterminded by Stanton, to oust Jack Olson, the Club’s manager. A native of the region and a born sportsman, Olson embodies all the qualities that the Club members lack. Further, many of the Club’s landholdings have been acquired through legal subterfuge from men such as Olson—locals who, because they lack money and political clout, are forced to sell to the socially and financially more powerful Centennial Club. Because he knows the land and its game (having poached the Club’s holdings for years), Olson maintains the job as manager, but his presence rankles the gentlemen hunters who lack his expertise, and their resentment serves Stanton’s machinations. Quinn, on the other hand, admires Olson and aspires to his quality of sportsmanlike conduct. On a fishing jaunt with Olson and Stanton, Quinn sticks with Olson, and the two “fish deferentially and await their occasions”—in contrast to Stanton, who tries “to beat fish out of the water.” It is Stanton, however, who emerges with a catch, and this event portends for Quinn “the beginnings of something catastrophic.”

Having surfaced in “Northern Gentlemen,” the book’s first chapter, Stanton’s plan to fire Olson comes to fruition in the second, “Native Tendencies.” Here, the new manager—a live-bait dealer named Earl Olive—appears. A flamboyant dresser, a raper of wildlife and women, Olive epitomizes the physically anarchic or “native tendencies” operating within the Club and undermining its rational veneer. Olive’s ascension to managerial status is heralded by the mysterious shooting and gutting of a doe and young buck, an act that would have been unheard of under Olson’s tutelage. Furthermore, the orgiastic shenanigans of Olive and his cohorts clarify the mounting dissension within the Centennial Club itself between Stanton and the more staid members. Quinn, maneuvering among his friendship with Stanton, his desire for Janey, his respect for Olson, and his loyalty to the more noble aspirations of the Club, becomes, in the end of this chapter, the victim of the Centennial Club’s moral disintegration. Caught in a watery torrent unleashed when unknown parties dynamite the Club lake, Quinn realizes that everything he knows of the Club is gone. The only certainty left him is “the few, clear lines” that keep “himself, Stanton, Janey, everybody, precisely separated.”

The final chapter, “Centennial Moon,” sees the total devolution of the Club and its members and the final ascension of Stanton as its private owner—the ascension of “whirl,” or the source of chaotic action within the story, as “king.” Much of the action of this chapter occurs as military skirmishes between the Club members and Olive’s zany group. Yet while in “Native Tendencies” the Olive camp revealed its native grossness—highlighted by the image of a beer-gutted male and a fleshy woman fornicating astride a moving Harley-Davidson—the decorous Centennial Club members now show their base underside. From their seat of operations—a large, unhygienic tent raised after the dynamiting of the Club buildings—the Centennial Club members foray into the night to carry out their centennial celebration: the unearthing of a time capsule left by their sporting ancestors. Its sole content, an aging photograph captioned “Dearest Children of the Twentieth Century, Do You Take Such Pleasure as Your Ancestors,” exposes the Club’s grand heritage—a vision of sexual sport flaunting “every phase of the spectrum of perversion.” Its dark side brought to light, the Club explodes in a conflagration of rhetoric and rocketry as Fortescue and Spengler attempt to extol the Club’s ancient virtues while Quinn, Stanton, and Olive skirmish intermittently. In the frenzy, Fortescue turns up tarred and feathered, Stanton holds everyone at bay with a machine gun, and the police arrive. Yet while the Club expires, releasing “a century of bad air,” its former sportive glories are revived when Stanton purchases it for his private domain. Meeting there in the new year, Quinn and Stanton (with Janey looking on) engage in a mock duel fought with plywood-cutout guns. In the end, the three of them retire to bed, Quinn musing over the felt presence of each of them, “compromised and happy . . . like bees in cells of honey.”

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