Driving on the Rim

For a cynic, the novelist Thomas McGuane is quite the sunny optimist, at least on evidence of his latest protagonist, one Irving Berlin Pickett, M.D. The latter does pretty much everything a man could possibly do to discourage the eventuality of a happy ending—using up about forty years of life in the process— but finally gets there anyway, to the all-consoling redemptions of love.

 

There is much that needs redeeming. In a first-person narrative (the second time McGuane has used the mode, after 1978's Panama), the housepainter-cum-doctor, a self-described "ninny" but actually an acute observer of both general human and peculiarly American folly, recounts innumerable instances of indiscriminate coupling (wives of friends, nurses, patients, even an aunt) and wise-ass foolhardiness. Among instances of this last are uncomfortably close involvements with suicides and ill-advised retaliations against rivals of all stripes. For much of the book, he writes his own cautionary tale against moving through life as a purely reactive being who lacks a considered code of morality. It naturally makes him a magnet for character-trying events: "Nowadays, experiences came at me like bugs hitting the windshield."

 

But what fascinating bugs they are, at least before they are so unceremoniously squashed: McGuane is a self-assured writer of great comedic powers, and he has an exquisitely calibrated sense of how far to go before dropping over the edge of the absurd. He also comes close to writing passages that are comedy-club ready:

The day came when Mrs. Vaughn discovered the uses to which the cabin cruiser was being put, and she divorced [T. Sam, a friend]. "Miss Lillian" had been named after her. He renamed the boat "Miss Ruby" after a subsequent lady friend, then "Miss Alice," then "Miss Judy," and so on the last time her transom was repainted, she was called "Queen for a Day."

As the locale of the story is Montana, McGuane's home and the compelling subject of much of his work, he is also customarily and seriously poetic about the natural world, including episodes where his anti-hero Pickett becomes lost in the wild, or goes fishing to soothe the incompletely examined roilings of his conscience: in the outdoors, he says, he always found "something of a cosmic liturgy." It is a better religion than that of his crackpot mother, who spoke in tongues and used to accost passersby on the street with visions of her god.

 

When the many tendrils of the story threaten to grow beyond the edges of any single narrative—leafing off the main line of the narrator's already complex tales are those of his father's experiences in World War II, internecine machinations at the clinic in which he practices, and smaller shoots that concern riding horses and painting houses and birdwatching—McGuane trims them back to the center of his picaresque comedy: the moment at which the salvations of love in the form of a good woman are finally embraced.

 

"Have I learned anything?" Pickett at one point asks, and if we know the answer is "Not really, because you just happen to be a lucky bastard," we ourselves have learned much. The paramount lesson is that Thomas McGuane writes like a well-aimed pistol shoots: fast, true, and straight to the heart.

April 18: "[W]ould it be too bold to imagine that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament…?"

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