Thomas McGuane McGuane, Thomas (Vol. 127) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Thomas McGuane 1939–

(Full name Thomas Francis McGuane III) American novelist, screenwriter, short story writer, essayist, and film director.

The following entry provides an overview of McGuane's career through 1997. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 3, 7, 18, and 45.

McGuane is known as a novelist of manners who uses satire to criticize the emptiness and meaninglessness of America's "declining snivelization." He is considered a regionalist writer—especially of the American West—whose environmental concerns are expressed through his fiction and political activism. Satirically drawn characters who are experiencing male crises is a constant theme in his fiction and screenplays. His male protagonists either leave the comforts of suburbia in a proverbial quest for America and themselves, or return to family ranches in a vain attempt to rekindle patriarchal family traditions. Whether attempting to recapture the myth of the West or embarking on an undefined quest for an America lost to its own materialism, dissipation, and mass cultural kitsch, McGuane's characters function as a critique of the self-destructive implications of masculine bravura and competition. His characters also simultaneously express nostalgia for an outmoded brand of masculinity associated with the heroic Western cowboy.

Biographical Information

Thomas Francis McGuane III was born in Wyandotte, Michigan, on December 11, 1939. He attended the University of Michigan, Olivet College, and Michigan State University, where he received a B.A. in 1962. McGuane then attended the Yale University School of Drama, earning an M.F.A. in 1965. From 1966 to 1967, McGuane had a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. McGuane has been married three times: to Portia Rebecca Crockett, from 1962 to 1975; briefly to actress Margot Kidder from 1976 to 1977; and to Laurie Buffett (sister of singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett) in 1977. In the 1970s, McGuane earned a reputation as an alcoholic, a drug abuser, and a womanizer—a reputation that has been difficult for McGuane to change. McGuane, however, often reminds interviewers that he was a disciplined, prolific, and successful writer during those years of supposed dissipation. When three close members of his family died within a thirty-month period in the late 1970s—including his father and sister—McGuane was profoundly affected by the losses. In middle age, he moved to a large ranch in Montana, where he lives with his wife and children, balancing the demands of family and ranching with a steady writing career.

Major Works

Critics have frequently compared McGuane to Ernest Hemingway, who also grew up in Michigan. Jerome Klinkowitz has said that in McGuane's first novel, The Sporting Club (1969), set in northern Michigan, McGuane "adapts the Hemingway code of sportsmanship and grace under pressure to contemporary times." And, while McGuane himself both denies the validity of this comparison and generally considers it an insult, his friendship with novelist Jim Harrison, also from Michigan, places him firmly in a tradition of masculinist writers who both celebrate and critique male camaraderie and competition in wilderness settings. As Beverly Lowry points out, "Mr. McGuane has never pretended to write from any other point of view than that of our manliest of American men." In The Sporting Club, a group of men—descendants of a one-hundred-year-old sporting club—go on a hunting trip in northern Michigan. During the trip, masculine bravado and competition lead to their self-destruction. McGuane's next three novels, The Bushwhacked Piano (1971), Ninety-Two in the Shade (1973), and Panama (1978), take place primarily in the Florida Keys, where, according to Klinkowitz, "within this context of intermingled exoticness and shabbiness he conducts his most thorough survey of manners." In The Bushwhacked Piano, Nicholas Payne leaves his family in suburbia, taking off with nothing but the motto, "I am at large," and hooking up with a self-proclaimed "floozy" girlfriend. In Ninety-Two in the Shade, Thomas Skelton leaves college to become a fishing guide, where his association with a fellow guide eventually leads to his self-destruction. In Panama, often considered McGuane's most autobiographical work, Chester Pomeroy is a burned-out rock star on the downside of his career path. A central characteristic of Pomeroy is his tendency to confuse his father with the late Western outlaw hero Jesse James. Pomeroy also attempts to win back his estranged wife through extreme tactics such as nailing himself to her door.

Subsequent McGuane novels take place primarily in the American West, specifically Montana. In Nobody's Angel (1982), Patrick Fitzpatrick, an army officer, returns to his family's ranch, where he falls in love with a married woman and eventually flees to Seville, Spain. In Something to Be Desired (1984), Lucien Taylor is a painter who also owns a tourist resort in Montana that attracts a host of eccentrics. Joe Starling of Keep the Change (1989) is a painter who returns to Montana to save his family ranch, where he discovers that the painting in an abandoned old house—his lifelong artistic inspiration—is merely an empty frame hanging against a plaster wall. In Nothing But Blue Skies (1992), Frank Copenhaver, a failing middle-aged businessman whose wife has just left him, turns to the American West in order to make sense of his life.

McGuane's work in Hollywood includes four screenplay credits and one directorial effort. His first screen credit, Rancho Deluxe (1973), is a comedic Western starring Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterston as two small-time cattle ranchers. The cast includes Slim Pickins and Harry Dean Stanton, as well as a cameo by country singer Jimmy Buffet. McGuane directed and wrote the screenplay for Ninety-Two in the Shade (1975), which is based on his 1973 novel and involves two feuding fishing boat captains in Florida. The cast for this wild comedy includes Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Margot Kidder, and Harry Dean Stanton. The Missouri Breaks (1975), McGuane's third screenplay, is a revisionist Western, which was directed by Arthur Penn, and stars Jack Nicholson as an outlaw and Marlon Brando as a bounty hunter. Tom Horn (1980), McGuane's most recent screenplay credit and revisionist Western, stars Steve McQueen as a bounty hunter.

McGuane published a collection of non-fiction essays, An Outside Chance, in 1980, and a collection of short stories, To Skin a Cat, in 1986.

Critical Reception

McGuane's novels are fairly consistent in their characterizations, use of language, and central themes. As a result, critics have tended to review McGuane's work as a whole, not individually. His novels are especially noted for their eccentric characters and cutting use of language to parody and satirize the vulgarity and emptiness of an America drowning in its own excesses of materialism and mass culture. John Leggett describes McGuane as "a satirist with a taste for the American oddball." Jerome Klinkowitz said, "most impressive is McGuane's ability to convey the characteristics of his culture within the words and syntax of his narrator's own speech." McGuane is likewise known as a chronicler of the dissipation and empty quests associated with the 1960s and 1970s in America. "Above all, McGuane is a novelist of manners because of his ability to single out the characteristics of an age and to know his characters through them," Klinkowitz said. Many critics say McGuane's prose stands out from works by other fiction writers of the early 1970s. McGuane's prose is "like a hot pink hearse in a funeral procession," Judson Klinger said in one review. According to Klinger, McGuane's first three novels display "outrageous wit, hallucinatory prose and comic-romantic-violent vision." McGuane's regionalist fiction and revisionist Westerns have been noted by many critics. Mark Harris, who invokes the author's media image as "a counterculture cowboy," points out that "A hallmark of McGuane's writing is its sense of location; the physical world is deeply important to his characters and his prose." Gregory L. Morris asserts that "the pervasive, informing influence of the American West is always at the heart of McGuane's writing." Morris defines McGuane's protagonists as "dislocated cowboys," asserting that, "What McGuane does is open—or re-open—the West to definition, reformation, reinvention." McGuane's concern for environmental issues, as expressed in his later novels, also has captured attention from several critics. "The recent writings of Thomas McGuane show a particular interest in environmentalist concerns, examining the role played by inherited mythologies of the frontier in the ecology and politics of the contemporary American West," said David Ingram. "McGuane's explorations reveal complex and ambivalent responses to these subjects, in part liberal, radical and conservative." However, critics have questioned the depth of McGuane's characters in his later novels. Keep the Change has been criticized for its characterization of Joe Starling, the novel's protagonist, whom some critics find to be shallow and distancing. Richard Russo sums up the disjuncture between the novel's theme and protagonist in a biting critique: "it's ironic that in a novel that questions the validity of 'distant' ownership and urges passion, not detachment, the author himself should be so hard to locate. For all its virtues, one comes away from Keep the Change feeling that a writer in full possession of his themes and techniques is leasing, not owning, the character whose story this is supposed to be." Other reviewers also have criticized McGuane for the similarities between his novels. "Perhaps it is McGuane's misfortune that he has written so many books, because after four or five the generic familiarity of the plots and the similarities of the heroes become very evident," noted a New York Review of Books critic of Nothing But Blue Skies (1992). The same work, however, won praise from Brad Knickerbocker, who in a review of the 1992 novel praises McGuane for his characters, which he describes as "deep, real, funny, and intelligent."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Sporting Club (novel) 1969
The Bushwhacked Piano (novel) 1971
Ninety-Two in the Shade (novel) 1973
Rancho Deluxe (screenplay) 1973
The Missouri Breaks (screenplay) 1975
Panama (novel) 1978
An Outside Chance: Essays on Sport (essays) 1980
Tom Horn (screenplay) 1980
Nobody's Angel (novel) 1982
Something to Be Desired (novel) 1984
To Skin a Cat (short stories) 1986
Keep the Change (novel) 1989
Nothing But Blue Skies (novel) 1992

Ninety-Two in the Shade also was published as a screenplay in 1975.

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Thomas McGuane with Kay Bonetti (interview date 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Interview with Thomas McGuane," in Conversations with American Novelists, edited by Kay Bonetti, et al., University of Missouri Press, 1997, pp. 56-75.

[In the following interview conducted in 1984, McGuane discusses how he integrates his lifestyle as a Montana Rancher with his writing career.]

Tom McGuane's writing career began in the sixties. This interview catches him at age forty-five, looking back on a rebellious youth and forward toward the issues of middle age. He speaks of his enduring fascination with comic writing. He says that the subject of his early novels was the expression of the American dream in the wild West of the 1960s and 1970s, and the...

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Thomas McGuane with Liz Lear (interview date March 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Conversation with Thomas McGuane," in Shenandoah, Vol. XXXVI, No. 2, 1986, pp. 12-21.

[In the following interview conducted in March of 1984, Lear and McGuane discuss the metaphysical implications of McGuane's fiction, ending with a focus on the recurrent imagery of wild dogs, wolves, and coyotes in his novels. To McGuane, these symbolize the threat of an apocalyptic end to humanity.]

McGuane lives mostly on a ranch in Montana with his wife Laurie, and various children: his, hers and theirs. In prosperous years he spends some of the winter in Key West, where he keeps a sailboat. He is an accomplished and avid sportsman, with a preference for hunting,...

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Jerome Klinkowitz (essay date 1985)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Thomas McGuane: The Novel of Manners Radicalized," in Literary Subversions: New American Fiction and the Practice of Criticism, Southern Illinois University Press, 1985, pp. 104-115.

[In the following essay, Klinkowitz discusses McGuane's fiction as "the new American novel of manners." He maintains that McGuane has the ability to single out the characteristics of an age and know his characters through them.]

A tea biscuit crumbles, and in its fragments Henry James can read the fortunes of a social world. "Her voice sounded like money," Nick Carraway says of Daisy Buchanan, and in that manneristic notation we sense the compelling illusion of Gatsby's life....

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Thomas McGuane with Judson Klinger (interview date April 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "In Pursuit of Crazy Language" in American Film, Vol. XIV, No. 6, April, 1989, pp. 42-44 and 63-64.

[In the following interview, McGuane discusses his experiences as a Hollywood screenwriter and the details of his work on films, including The Missouri Breaks, Tom Horn, Rancho Deluxe, 92 In the Shade, and Cold Feet.]

Thomas McGuane is accustomed to rough weather. He's lived and ranched for the better part of 20 years on the wide, open rangeland of southwest Montana, and nothing much surprises him. But what's going on outside his window today is, to lift a line from one of his books, "worse than real different," A fierce winter Chinook is blowing gusts up...

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Eric Larsen (review date 17 September 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Literary Quilt of Faded Colors," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 17, 1989, pp. 3, 10.

[In the following review, Larsen criticizes McGuane's novel Keep the Change, calling it a "half-hearted work," of "tossed-together leftovers."]

The irrepressible Thomas McGuane strides forth once again, in [Keep the Change], his 10th book and seventh novel, to take on nothing less than the breadth and troubled essence themselves of native life in end-of-the-century America. In the McGuane mode, it's a book that seems to set out to do all things—dazzle, satirize, embrace, lament, and perhaps at end to salvage the pieces of a lesser world. The work...

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Mark Harris (essay date 29 September 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tom McGuane," in Publishers Weekly, September 29, 1989, p. 50, 52.

[In the following essay, McGuane talks about his writing career, his novel Keep the Change, and life on his Montana ranch.]

"The heir to Hemingway"; "Captain Berserko"; "macho pig"—Thomas McGuane has had plenty of labels to live down and just as many to live up to in his nine-book career, and none of them seems to do him justice.

Barely 30 when he burst onto the literary scene with The Sporting Club, he saw his star as a novelist soar with The Bushwacked Piano and 92 in the Shade. Lyrical, coruscating and subtly political, his books made him a...

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Gregory L. Morris (essay date Spring 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "How Ambivalence Won the West: Thomas McGuane and the Fiction of the New West," in Critique, Vol. XXXII, No. 3, Spring, 1991, pp. 180-89.

[In the following essay, Morris praises McGuane as one of a number of regional fiction writers of "the new West."]

Writing in 1980, in a special issue of TriQuarterly dedicated to new writers of the American West, William Kittredge and Steven M. Krauzer declared

The current status of western writing is similar to that of southern American writing in the early 1930s when a major regional voice, in the persons of such authors as William Faulkner, Robert Penn Warren, Eudora Welty,...

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Brad Knickerbocker (review date 7 October 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Midlife Misery in Cow Country," in Christian Science Monitor, October 7, 1992.

[In the following review of Nothing But Blue Skies, Knickerbocker praises McGuane's characterizations, stating "The strength of McGuane's characters is the compassion they elicit."]

Thomas McGuane writes like a dream … in a nightmarish world.

His characters are deep, real, funny, and intelligent. Their dialogue is sharp and sweet, clever (in the best sense) without being contrived. They move in a landscape of rich detail, in town and out, following a trout stream.

They are also desperate and at times out of control. Not out of McGuane's...

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William Kittredge (review date 11 October 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Get Real," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 11, 1992, pp. 1, 11.

[In the following review of Nothing But Blue Skies, Kittredge praises McGuane's ability to evoke the pathos of the disappearing natural landscape of the American West.]

Tom McGuane's work has always been vibrant with the pleasures of ironic language, play and chase, and quick with the kind of brokenhearted humor that mirrors large-scale fracturing inside our society. We can't stand behind many of our preconceptions any more. The so-called nuclear family, for instance, mom and dad and the kids, the mortgage, the old folks back home, is a kind of vanishing species. And in Montana,...

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David Streitfield (essay date 25 October 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "McGuane Mellows," in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XXII, No. 43, October 25, 1992, p. 15.

[In the following essay, Streitfield discusses McGuane's current lifestyle on his Montana ranch with his wife and children, contrasting it with his long-time reputation as a drinker and womanizer.]

Sometime in the past couple of years, Tom McGuane completed the transition from aging Bad Boy to youngish Grand Old Man. You can chart the transition by looking, first, at the back of his old 1978 novel, Panama: It's a photo of McGuane at the tiller of a boat, long hair askew, hunting for something, looking manic. Then examine the back of his latest, Nothing But...

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Robert M. Adams (review date 3 December 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Cornering the Market," in New York Review of Books, Vol. 39, No. 20, December 3, 1992, pp. 14-16.

[In the following review, Adams gives Nothing But Blue Skies an unfavorable review, saying its similarity to McGuane's previous stories renders it unmemorable.]

Thomas McGuane is mainly from Montana and has written, over the last twenty years, more than seven novels and several books of short stories set against this background. These are not cowboy-and-Indian novels, nor are they set in the familiar mean streets of the desert metropolis. The center of McGuane's universe is the good-sized town or small city of Deadrock, Montana, and his theme is the aching...

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Thomas McGuane with Deborah Houy (interview date January-February 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Thomas McGuane Speaks," in Buzzworm, Vol. V, No. 1, January-February, 1993, pp. 32, 34-35.

[In the following interview, McGuane discusses his ideas about and activism in environmentalist issues as well as the "green" movement, which he claims is "the first sort of quasi-religious movement which cuts across class and economic lines."]

Thomas McGuane—great American novelist, rancher and fly-fisherman—was in Denver recently on a promotional tour for his new novel, Nothing But Blue Skies. McGuane is the author of eight novels, including The Sporting Club, Ninety-Two in the Shade and Keep the Change, as well as several screenplays...

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Gregory McNamee (review date July-August 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Spirit of the American West," in Bloomsbury Review, Vol. 13, No. 4, July-August, 1993, p. 14.

[In the following favorable review of Nothing But Blue Skies, McNamee describes McGuane's novel as "a well-considered study of a man confronting mid-life crisis, and, in the end, overcoming it by sheer force of will."]

Thomas McGuane has consciously carved out a niche in American literary history as our contemporary Hemingway, which includes tracing the old man's footsteps from place to place and adopting some of his poses: sports fisherman, footloose journalist. In the sixties and seventies he was associated with Key West, another Hemingway haunt, where...

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David Ingram (essay date December 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Thomas McGuane: Nature, Environmentalism, and the American West," in Journal of American Studies, Vol. 29, No. 3, December, 1995, pp. 423-439.

[In the following essay, Ingram discusses environmentalist themes in McGuane's fiction, stating "In McGuane's writings, nature gives an opportunity for his male protagonists to attempt to recover a sense of original purity and mastery beyond the compromises and power struggles of a competitive society."]

The recent writings of Thomas McGuane show a particular interest in environmentalist concerns, examining the role played by inherited mythologies of the frontier in the ecology and politics of the contemporary American...

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James I. McClintock (essay date Winter 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Unextended Selves' and 'Unformed Visions': Roman Catholicism in Thomas McGuane's Novels," in Renascence, Vol. IL, No. 2, Winter, 1997, pp. 139-52.

[In the following essay, McClintock discusses Roman Catholic spirituality themes in McGuane's novels, particularly in Panama and Nobody's Angel.]

Thomas McGuane's novels, short stories, essays, and screen plays place him among the best contemporary American writers. Reviewers have uniformly commented on his constant and redeeming wit in portraying suffering, alienated male protagonists, even though academic critics have neglected his work. For twenty-five years Thomas McGuane has employed a masterful range...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Garcia, Guy D. "He's Left No Stone Unturned." Time, 25 December 1989: pp. 70-2.

Essay in which Garcia discusses McGuane's current lifestyle and writing habits as a "gentleman rancher and Marlboro Man of Letters."


Gregory, Sinda and Larry McCaffery. "The Art of Fiction LXXXIX: An Interview with Thomas McGuane." Paris Review 27, No. 97 (Fall 1985): 34-71.

An in-depth interview in which McGuane discusses his early years as a writer, his writing methods, and his experiences as a director and screenwriter.


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