Tom McGuane, writer
I started reading Tom McGuane’s books just a few years ago after a friend suggested a couple of titles. I liked his stuff right from the jump. McGuane works his readers hard; attention must constantly be paid to where his characters are going and what they are doing—or not doing. His characters are complex, flawed, and are always driven toward the edge of something. He owns his reader for the length of the narrative. Furthermore, it might be a good idea to keep a dictionary handy while reading his stories because he works the language to the snapping point with the run on feel of his sentences and his word choices. These days, it’s gratifying for me to simply be excited about a great author as I charge into geezer hood, and McGuane is such an author. I just wish I’d learned about this guy earlier in my life; there are nuggets of gold to be mined in his work.
A few months ago, I received a signed — with an inscription — copy of McGuane’s new book titled “Cloudbursts.” And, I had the greatest intentions of not scribbling annotations on the pages; however, I’ve always annotated good books because it happens reflexively when I read and study good writing. It’s a habit from my college and teaching years. Well, the road to hell was filled with good intentions but at the first short story of this collection—of older and more recent ones — by McGuane, the pencil came out along with the dictionary. Circles, checkmarks, under linings, double under linings, Nota Benes, arrows, LOLs, parentheses, bigger circles and other notes now fill pretty much every page, where the book has become a big mess of pencil and ink scrawl. Moreover, the dictionary became an absolute necessity. McGuane has the ability to make terrific word choices, without sounding pretentious—which can be a hard thing to pull off for any writer. He does this seamlessly; it’s a gutsy thing to do so I tip my hat to him for this.
McGuane’s stories take us for a long rough road of twist and turns. Here is a guy who started out his young life in a working-class neighborhood of Fall River, Massachusetts, and then moved on to Michigan. Then, he gets some encouragement from a professor from Harvard in regards to his writing, goes to Yale, and ends up studying with Wallace Stegner out at Stanford University in the Creative Writing Program. McGuane, Larry McMurtry, Robert Stone, Ken Kesey et al, studied with Stegner, who was a Pulitzer Prize winner and considered “The Dean of Western Writers.” Furthermore, Key West and Montana are featured in the backstory of this man of letters. McGuane has a broad canvas from which to inform us about myriad characters and their conflicts.
The first story I read was “Aliens,” and the sentence, “Homer was married to CeeCee, a pleasant alcoholic from Point Judith, Rhode Island,” (I actually read this story at the Point Judith Lighthouse) “their vacations were spent not in Montana, as he would have liked, but on the island madhouse of Nantucket, which he detested, as he did all seaside places.” That sentence got underlined right from the rip. The next story I read is about a guy on a quest to find resolution or some context for his life. In “The Refugee” the third person narrator writes, “Nevertheless, his belief that all of his problems would go away once he reached Key West brought him a kind of grim cheer; recently in a time of unsurpassed bleakness, when the landscape of his failures seemed almost to afford death a dismal glamor…” It is sentences like these where the reader can forget about concerns of narrative structure or where the main character will end up, and simply enjoy the writing — let the sentences ride. The protagonist in this story is making his journey on a sailboat, and it is very clear that the author has had much sailing experience. We know that we’re in capable hands when writing is this precise and credible. All of these stories share that same value. (I’m still thinking of the clever ending of “The Refugee.” This story will be reread to see what literary device McGuane used.)
Another thing which is noteworthy within this collection, is each story has a strong sense of place. As stated earlier, the author has covered some serious ground in his. He is also a very well-read guy which expands his knowledge of the human condition and our collective flawed natures. In the story “Cowboy,” which is set on a small ranch, the dialogue is austere and the setting is so visceral that we can feel the pain from the work that is involved in maintaining horses. The narrator of this story has a sketchy past, and after three years he begins to trust—which informs us about the Cowboy’s value system—his boss who we find out didn’t care about what he’d done. The Cowboy says, “The important thing is I was workin’ my tail off for that old sumbitch, and he knew it. Nothin’ else mattered, even the fact we come to like each other. After all, this was a goddamn ranch.” I will revisit this story to simply enjoy the dialogue; its sparse Western language is worked in the tradition of McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove.”
One of my favorite stories in this collection is, “Tango.” This story has LOL written about fifteen times in the margins. Here we find the pure wit that McGuane possesses. There is so much crazy dispensed in this story regarding a guy and a girl who end up taking a Tango lesson; it begs a couple of readings. These people are awkward, their dancing is awkward and the story is awkward. (There is irony in the title—this is not a graceful dance of a relationship.) This compressed narrative could be expanded in to a full-length movie. This story has it all: comedic structure, flawed characters, and catchy dialogue. And, it has an ending that will hit you like a cloudburst.