Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Despite The Sporting Club’s veneer of realistic narrative—a stylistic device evident in the “straight” descriptions of trout fishing and in the allowance for character motivation and recognizable plot—which parallels the Club’s veneer of rational order and decorum, the book appears to be a contemporary antinovel. The inherent alienation born of Quinn’s moral passivity (a condition that he perceives in those “few clear lines” that isolate him from his friends and from life) is reflected in the stylistic distance occasioned by an essentially authoritative narrative voice.

Thomas McGuane has been compared to Ernest Hemingway, and in his passages describing man in nature—in the forest, in the desert, on the ocean—McGuane does achieve an eloquent simplicity reminiscent of Hemingway. Yet while Hemingway’s style evolves a new narrative wherein the loss of old certainties opens into a universe of creative possibilities, McGuane, in his first novel, takes the path of contemporary writers such as Joseph Heller and John Barth, who suggest that insanity is the appropriate response to a world gone mad. In effect, McGuane answers modernist nihilism with absurdist parody.

McGuane’s ironic tone toward his protagonists and their universe, along with his pessimistic worldview, prevents his fiction from being easily accessible. The ambivalence created by his alternatingly bitterly humorous and tragically pessimistic tone can be puzzling—one is not sure how the author intends his characters to be perceived. Yet in such later novels as Nobody’s Angel and Something to Be Desired, McGuane’s antiheroes have become more sympathetic, and his themes, such as the necessity for love in human relationships and the alarming decline of a national morality in America, have emerged more clearly through his often elliptical and always ironic style.