Thomas McGuane

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Thomas Francis McGuane III was born in Wyandotte, Michigan, on December 11, 1939, to Thomas Francis II and Alice McGuane. His family contained some “fantastic storytellers,” and McGuane inherited both the ability and the inclination to make storytelling his life. As a child, McGuane read nature books at his family’s summer retreat, a fishing camp in northern Michigan that resembles the setting for his first novel, The Sporting Club (1969). His other passion, which he has also pursued since his childhood, is sportfishing, an activity that appears in most of his novels.

McGuane graduated from Cranbrook, an exclusive boarding school in Michigan. During his years there he once ran away to a Wyoming ranch owned by the father of a girlfriend and returned an avowed “sociopath.” He later used this experience and the resulting attitude as the basis for his second novel, The Bushwhacked Piano (1971). His college career began on an unpromising note when he flunked out of the University of Michigan. He briefly attended Olivet College and then graduated from Michigan State University with honors. In 1965, he received his M.F.A. in playwriting from Yale University and spent the following academic year at Stanford University on a Wallace Stegner Fellowship. McGuane has supported himself by writing screenplays, including Rancho Deluxe (1973), Ninety-two in the Shade (1975), The Missouri Breaks (1975), and (with Bud Shrake) Tom Horn (1980), and by directing Ninety-two in the Shade. Raising cutting horses brings in enough money to pay his ranch mortgage, and he has become an expert sport fisherman, sailor, and rodeo competitor.

Throughout his college career, McGuane avoided what have been considered the typical undergraduate excesses of alcohol and drugs to the point that he was called the “White Knight.” In December of 1972, however, he lost control of his Porsche on an icy road en route to the Florida Keys, an accident that barely damaged the car but left McGuane so shaken that he could not speak for hours afterward. This brush with death made him see that art was not as important as life, and he abandoned what had been his relentless pursuit of writing. The following years were filled with tales of wild behavior, excessive drinking and drug use, and hasty marriages, encouraged in part by McGuane’s involvement in screenwriting and directing in Hollywood. He had affairs with actresses Elizabeth Ashley and Margot Kidder and was divorced by his wife, Becky, after thirteen years of marriage when she learned that Kidder was pregnant. After nine months of marriage, Kidder and McGuane also were divorced.

McGuane admits his years of excessive behavior, but he maintains that the stories are exaggerated. Indeed, the amount of work that he produced indicates that close to 80 percent of his waking hours were spent writing and directing. His marriage in 1977 to Laurie Buffett (sister of singer Jimmy Buffett) helped stabilize his life, and since then he has approached both life and his art with greater balance.

McGuane’s third novel, Ninety-two in the Shade (1973), draws on his experience sportfishing in the Keys. His fourth novel, Panama (1978), a departure from his first three, is a prolonged howl of despair from a washed-up rock star that reflects McGuane’s own mixed feelings about his turbulent years in Hollywood. A more settled McGuane wrote three novels focusing on male restlessness in a country deteriorating into materialism and fads. Nobody’s Angel (1982), Something to Be Desired (1984), and Keep the Change (1989) are set in the ranch country of Montana and feature protagonists who are looking for a way to live in a world that offers...

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few satisfactory choices.The Cadence of Grass, an offbeat novel about a dysfunctional Montana family, was published in 2002

In Nobody’s Angel, Patrick Fitzpatrick, disoriented by the deaths of his father and sister (recent events in McGuane’s own life) fails to find a suitable answer to his search. The relatively upbeat conclusions of Something to Be Desired and Keep the Change reflect McGuane’s satisfaction with his more orderly and settled life. He approaches his writing with energy and seriousness, but he receives equal pleasure from raising and training horses and successfully competing in rodeos.

An Outside Chance: Essays on Sport (1980) shows a slightly different side of McGuane than is revealed in his fiction. He is intensely interested in sport, especially fishing, and writes about it with a perception that most sportsmen and sportswriters do not possess. In 1986, McGuane published a collection of short stories, To Skin a Cat; the stories in this collection deal with the same concerns found in his novels, adapted to the more structured form of the short story.


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McGuane is a spokesman for what he sees as the decadence of the late twentieth century. His characters experience the confusion that results from the loss of strong masculine values in a world that supports and rewards cleverness and political power. They survive by looking askance at the world and searching for a vocation that will allow them to avoid seeing the deterioration around them. McGuane’s humor and bizarre imagination make his novels as entertaining as they are thought-provoking and puzzling.


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Thomas McGuane was born in Wyandotte, Michigan, on December 11, 1939. He graduated with honors from Michigan State University in 1962, earned a master of fine arts degree from the Yale Drama School in 1965, and spent 1966-1967 at Stanford on a Wallace Stegner Fellowship. His parents were New England Irish who migrated to the Midwest, where his father became an auto-parts tycoon. McGuane once stated that he inherited his storytelling impulse from his mother’s family, who loved verbal sparring and yarn spinning. Newspaper and magazine articles on McGuane often comment on the manic behavior, heavy drinking, and drug use that marked his film years, as well as on his eventual return to sobriety, family life, and hard work. McGuane chose to pursue a career as a writer apart from life in the academic world, believing that his chances of writing interesting novels would be diminished were he to confine himself to life in English departments.

McGuane developed an interest in raising and training cutting horses. He became a champion horse cutter, competing regularly in rodeos, and an accomplished sailor and fisherman, spending a part of every year at fishing haunts in Florida and Georgia. He also began to direct his energies toward conservation, working as director of American Rivers and of the Craighead Wildlife-Wildlands Institute.