- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 12, 2002

By Thomas McGuane
Knopf, $24, 237 pages

Through a dozen books since the publication of his first, "The Sporting Club" (1968), Thomas McGuane has led a life at odds with that of the typical serious novelist more likely concerned with academic tenure. For over 30 years Mr. McGuane has lived on a Montana ranch, fishing and hunting and raising cutting horses. Though he is weary of it, this outdoor life has invited comparisons to Ernest Hemingway. Mr. McGuane also had a period in his life that could be called "wild." Maybe the proper comparison is to an amalgam of Hemingway and Mick Jagger.
I make note of this in light of four novels, "Nobody's Angel" (1982), "Something to Be Desired" (1984), "Keep the Change" (1989) and "Nothing But Blue Skies" (1992) fictions through which Mr. McGuane has tried to make sense of the rapidly changing American West. A New West scanned by a jaundiced eye, where his psychologically damaged characters inhabit a physically declining landscape. The bank's about to foreclose on the ranch, which is being eyed by porcine developers or mindlessly wealthy movie stars. Walmarts and subdivisions stretch to the horizon. Little Montana towns are filling up with well-heeled, Merlot swilling environmentalists who went to graduate school. Everybody's had too much to drink last night.
Mr. McGuane continues in this vein with his new novel, "The Cadence of Grass." As usual, we have the McGuane trademark dysfunctional family whose roots in Montana go back generations. The patriarch, Sunny Jim Whitelaw, has died, and the clan gathers for the reading of the will (one of the literary West's most dependable devices): There is the ranch and Sunny Jim's spring water bottling plant of which to dispose. Sunny Jim was a noisy, larger-than-life man, and his widow Alice Whitelaw is relieved by his passing. She took a post-mortem vacation cruise to Alaska, and returned announcing with pleasure that she had met "a large group of average people who were quite wonderful" and did not "wish to humiliate one another for sport."
Sunny Jim's "daughters" (more on that later) Evelyn and Natalie, are both on the verge of divorce, and Natalie struggles with a drug problem. The two sons-in-law are Stuart Cross (married to Natalie), the dutiful and hardworking one whom Sunny Jim treated badly, and Paul Crusoe (married to Evelyn), a charming sociopath who has done a stretch in prison, but who was Sunny Jim's favorite because Paul was so much like himself.
Paul is a '90s guy who might remind the reader of Bill Clinton. He has had an affair with Natalie, which rankles Evelyn and Stuart, and he even sleeps with his parole officer, Geraldine Cardwell, this causing her suicide. Bill Champion who lives up to his name manages the family ranch, and is the kind of competent, elderly cowboy now passing from the scene. This World War II veteran is Mr. McGuane's nostalgic link with the Old West.
There is a theory that Thomas McGuane like other equally talented writers writes the same novel over and over again. In an interview, the late Wallace Stegner, while chatting about some of the illustrious alumni of his eponymous Stanford Fellowship program (of which Mr. McGuane is one), labeled the Montana author his most "clever." Stegner seemed to imply that Mr. McGuane writes too well, and plays it safe by relying on formidable stylistic talents.
For instance, Paul Crusoe is a composite reinvention of Patrick Fitzpatrick ("Nobody's Angel"), Lucien Taylor ("Something to Be Desired"), Joe Starling ("Keep the Change"), and Frank Copenhaver ("Nothing But Blue Skies"). Mr. McGuane (born 1939) is not himself a Baby Boomer, but these male protagonist-McGuane alter egos share that American Boomer angst and self-absorption found in those aforementioned characters, and in much American fiction published in the last generation.
These men are divorced drunks or druggies not in control of their destinies. Their relations with women are sexist or simply confused in the face of feminism. They don't understand their children, and are at a loss to explain their failures as parents. The milieu of the changing modern West imbues these existential cowboys with a sense of heroic tragedy however false unlike the same sort of guy living on East 68th Street and going daily to a soul-numbing job as a Manhattan stockbroker. In the contemporary American novel it is much more romantic to blow it and lose the ranch, rather than the summer digs in the Hamptons.
Those formidable stylistic gifts produce dazzling flights of rhetoric, as Mr. McGuane writes of one of those large wheels of hay unrolling for the cattle in a "luscious scroll of green, vivid and anomalous against the winter landscape." In summer, the multi-talented Bill Champion dons beekeeper's attire and tends to the hives: "the gold and varnished chambers of this myriad larval world, a city whose oozing districts he could slice into or break off, sweet and heavy, with his hands." Evelyn riding off to the hills on a cold day to help Bill round up six stray heifers finds that, "the wind had pressed the trees around them into a crooked wood of stunted trees, now a haunting boreal chorus."
All this fancy literary footwork (Saul Bellow once admiringly called Mr. McGuane "a language star") compliments a novel that might also be criticized for having too many irons in the branding fire. Evelyn gets drunk at a local nightspot and precariously spurns the attentions of an Aryan skinhead (a Montana cliche, the author should know better).
There is a small subplot about an eccentric ranch family called the Aadfield's, whose hilarious presence in "The Cadence of Grass" serves only the purpose to pair up the scion Donald (a secret crossdresser who wears hair curlers at home) with Evelyn at novel's end. This illustrates the fact that Mr. McGuane sometimes overreaches for comic effect. It turns out that Bill Champion is Evelyn's and Natalie's father, not the late Sunny Jim. The ending is an implausible one in which Paul involves a gullible Bill in an over-the-border Canadian drug-smuggling scheme that has tragic consequences.
There is much talk in the West's erudite circles about striving for a first rate regional literature. The South of William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor and Carson McCullers offers the most compelling examples of a rural milieu peopled with colorful characters, though slightly grotesque and rarely encountered in real life. And so it is with Mr. McGuane's Montana. That said, "The Cadence of Grass" is funny and well written, and though otherwise flawed, is the work of a man who is probably one of West's most important living writers.

Bill Croke is a writer in Cody, Wyoming.

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