DRIVING ON THE RIM
By Thomas McGuane
Knopf, $26.95 306 pages
The character I.B. "Berl" Pickett may be a doctor, but other than that he's a real mess. Maybe that's what happens when you're named after Irving Berlin. Or maybe that's what happens when you're born to a woman who would name her child after Irving Berlin - and a father who chose Lefty Frizzell. Either way, Berl got off on the wrong foot in life, and had it not been for a kindly neighbor who happened to be a doctor and saw something worth nurturing in the odd boy, Berl Pickett would never have found medicine, at which he turned out to be very good - good with patients, that is, not other doctors or administrators or any kind of authority figure. Let's just say Berl is your typical Thomas McGuane "hero" and leave it at that.
In his fiction, Mr. McGuane, deservedly one of America's most celebrated writers, casts a cool but not cruel eye on human foibles, and "Driving on the Rim," his ninth novel, is no exception. But he can't resist satirizing the circumstances of his characters, especially Berl Pickett.
World War II provided the defining moments for Berl's father's life, an experience from which he never truly recovered. As for Berl's mother, she's an avid Holy Roller who can't understand why everyone can't see the light and accept the Lord into their hearts. And then there's his Aunt Silbie, who - are you ready? - introduces the boy to the joys of sex. When Berl's parents discover this way too familiar familial activity, it's get thee begone, Silbie.
When we meet Dr. Pickett, he's about 50, I'd guess, but the author never comes right out and tells us that. He works at a clinic where he is considered a very odd duck for the very good reason that he walks, talks and quacks like a very odd duck. He lives in an odd house - of course, this being Montana, his views are spectacular - drives a barely drivable Olds 88, and is known to come to work after sleeping one off in the field. The other doctors are perfect foils for Mr. McGuane's satirical pen, and he darts them again and again. Then there is the beautiful pediatrician Jinx Mayhall, whom Berl should be pursuing. But, fearing rejection, he chases a string of misfits, with predictable results.
He meets the most dangerous of this comely lot, Jocelyn Boyce, when she crashes her small plane as he is driving by in his 88 on the way to do some fly-fishing. Using his accidental status as a "first responder," Dr. Pickett visits Jocelyn, and thus begins a liaison about as ill-fated as can be imagined - and Mr. McGuane has a spectacular imagination. Despite many early warning signs that Jocelyn is not exactly who or what she claims to be, the besotted doctor persists in seeing her.
While this is unfolding, so is the drama of a potential charge of negligent homicide involving the death of an old woman whom Berl has known and loved since his youth. The more the noose seems to tighten, the less Berl seems to care, which is the kind of existential point Mr. McGuane likes to make. Driving on the rim, indeed.
Don't expect a straightforward narrative. The author tells his story in a loose chronological order, but is continually looping back to make a point about the past, which can be that of Berl or his parents or the town or any number of subjects that interest Mr. McGuane (whose personal history is, or used to be, at least as colorful as that of the characters he creates).
Interspersed throughout are wonderful, seemingly tossed off, observations on man and nature. You cannot read Mr. McGuane without having to stop and reread, whether it's a passage or just a phrase.Here's what happened to a man named Earl: "In Florida, he was arrested for vagrancy and spent a month on a chain gang. When released, he wandered penniless down a dirt road trying to think how to get back to Montana (it was hot). Passing a Holy Roller church, he heard the pandemonium within and a huge woman stepped out and called to him, 'Come in and be saved!' Earl soon found himself rolling around on the floor, where he discovered a wallet with enough money to get him home."
And sometimes what starts as satire ends up as a serous statement: "My mother's death not long after I had begun my career had the effect of removing a sort of white noise from my father's life and mine, a very pleasant white noise that I thought maybe only women could provide. It was the sound of life, unlike the logic of silence that appealed to men: women sought God while men sought Euclid. I wished they were the same."
That's classic Tom McGuane.
John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.
© Copyright 2016 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.