Thomas McGuane McGuane, Thomas (Vol. 7) - Essay

McGuane, Thomas (Vol. 7)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

McGuane, Thomas 1939–

McGuane, an American novelist, is mainly concerned with drastic and negative changes in America, which he calls "a declining snivelization." (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52.)

[Ninety-Two In The Shade] is set in the riverrunning heart of America, in that vague and pulpy geography of marshes, inlets and creeks. It is here that Nichol Dance, a Caliban in Ariel's clothing, and a cold sole known as Carter ply their skiffs, for the benefit of visiting fishermen. Into their icthyolatrous womb sinks Tom Skelton, a young man who has at last escaped from life and is looking for the real thing among what Americans call 'nature.' He, too, takes up with a skiff but you cannot go very far or very fast in an Ameridiluvian swamp and Ninety Two In The Shade describes that overwhelming sense of place which invades someone who cannot move.

But the background is attractive enough, small towns and inlets being the natural home of fish and vegetation as well as of vice, and the prose amasses detail like a Baedekker. A somewhat more wayward naturalism is reserved for sad humankind: "'Leave it at the fuel dock,' said Dance now blearier than ever but still letting a thin devilish gas from slightly pursed lips evidence some dire bowel chemistry." This represents the old American principle of yoking opposites violently together and viewing the result with a mixture of scepticism and amusement. McGuane catalyses pseudo-technical jargon (evidence here of some dire American machismo which makes a great deal of "man's work well done" etcetera) with a non-denominational quirkiness, his own stylish comments with the gilded dreariness of his meta-hero Skelton, a highly literary allusiveness with an elemental obviousness….

The whole effect is curiously abstract as though the prose were floating some feet off solid ground. And the absence of a tedious verisimilitude does, of course, allow McGuane to raise a few laughs at the expense of his swamp-men. Dance shoots at someone quite off the cuff, and "I just popped that little hole in him and he leaked out and quit. I feel like I been framed." And framed he is, a portrait of the good old boys in a prospect of metaphors; the prose bounces along in a kollidoscrape of jokes and images reminding one ineluctably of Hanna and Barbera. It is all very homespun, very funny, very cute and, with a mixture of high and low styles that would have Dante revolving in his ninth circle, very republican. (p. 52)

Ninety Two In The Shade is full of small, bright objects leaning slightly to one side, and they wink all the fiercer in a setting sun. It is a funny and talented novel. (p. 54)

Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), July 13, 1974.

Since The Sporting Club, his first novel, Thomas McGuane has been working in what might be called the school of American Dada: Ninety-Two In the Shade exploits its techniques relentlessly, punchily, and with what seems to me almost too great a facility, as if the tough absurdist manner comes by rote to him now—like a musician rattling off a dozen of his favourite licks. Yet the manner is not easily or arbitrarily adopted (though some of its results do seem arbitrary); McGuane's first sentence is 'Nobody knows, from sea to shining sea, why we are having all this trouble with our republic …' and his language-mad, choppy technique has its roots in political and moral desperation. In a black time, cut off from history or any credible myth for sustenance, a novelist might put all the faith he has in his words, in his imagination and in the slapdash comedies he can make. It's a situation which makes conventional fictional realism bizarrely unreal—all creation is creation from a void, so anything goes, everything can be fitted in, helter-skelter. (p. 126)

McGuane uses his talent for back-country dialogue, spins off on to tangents about baton-twirling and trampolining—but, most importantly, demonstrates his fascination with cars, machines and technics of all sorts. Fishing is riddled with technics, all of that lore about what to use and where to use it, and McGuane makes of this material a giant pun on Hemingway. His novel deliberately warps the famous Hemingway ethical codes; it uses these codes obliquely and disbelievingly, since things have got too drastic for such simplicities to have moral resonance. Hence madness, desperate comedy, and looping narrative: but I wish McGuane would forgo some of his trickier similes…. (pp. 126-27)

Peter Straub, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), July 26, 1974.

[In McGuane's novels,] games help structure the interplay of humor and pathos as characters struggle with each other and with themselves. Game may be defined in a broad sense as a set of arbitrary conventions, accepted by the players, which guide behavior (often competitive) for amusement and for escaping the necessities of ordinary reality. On one hand, games may offer a humorous criticism of the less flexible structures of society, a satiric potential which McGuane richly exploits. On the other, games illustrate a tragic nemesis in the competitive opposition and in the encompassing non-game reality rediscovered at the game's end. Although games may seem marginal as luxury pursuits, available only to those with leisure time and money, they are important as a locus of choice that forces players to discover and to act on their personal values. In all their forms in these novels (sport, hunting, jokes, parties, art forms, con games, mock duels), games are a matrix for operation of psyche, desire, quest, and terminus. Typically, McGuane takes a protagonist (Quinn, Payne, Skelton) with enough personal freedom to play games and confronts him, through a series of games, with an antagonist (Stanton, Codd, Dance) and a girl (Janey, Ann, Miranda). (p. 91)

Of the three novels, The Sporting Club and Ninety-Two in the Shade have the tightest structures and the most oppressive dramatic situations, while The Bushwhacked Piano is rhapsodic and, until the end, open. The novels move from psychodrama to hypothesis to existential being. The Sporting Club proffers a somewhat desperate fun in its ambition, creating extraordinary effects, yet manhandling the reader. The Bushwhacked Piano, wild and woolly, gives us a lot of space until the finale pulls it back—an efficient design. Ninety-Two in the Shade combines the craftsmanship of The Sporting Club with the conceptual range of The Bushwhacked Piano to yield a rich array of fun and satire as well as nemesis and pathos. McGuane seems to have brought so many techniques to full fruition that it is hard to imagine what he can do next. That task, happily, is not ours but his. (p. 103)

Albert Howard Carter, III, "McGuane's First Three Novels: Games, Fun, Nemesis," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by Critique, 1975), Vol. XVII, No. 1, 1975, pp. 91-104.