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 InformationThomas 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.
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.
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."