- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 22, 2006

GALLATIN CANYON

By Thomas McGuane

Knopf, $24, 219 pages

REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA

There are good writers and there are very good writers and then there are a few very very good writers. Thomas McGuane is a very very good writer. When he made his name with such wonderful books as “The Sporting Club” (1969), “Bushwhacked Piano” (1971) and “Ninety-two in the Shade” (1973), it was apparent that he had a real talent, not just for his prose but also for his people.

A transplanted Midwesterner, Mr. McGuane has lived in Wyoming for more than three decades, and many of his stories are set there, but as important as the settings may be, what counts is what happens to the people he puts in his landscapes. “Gallatin Canyon,” a collection of 10 short stories of various lengths, is happy proof that at 67, Mr. McGuane has lost none of his ability to create arresting characters and put them to some sort of test in a way that keeps the reader engaged, entertained and, on occasion, enthralled.

In “Vicious Circle,” John Briggs, who is almost 40, meets Olivia, a beautiful but strange young woman in her late 20s with twin problems, alcohol and reality. Mr. McGuane’s satire has lost none of its bite. Here’s his description of a farmer’s market:

“A bearded youth offered handmade walking sticks; next to him, with a cage full of rabbits, a woman in Chiapas folk costume sold Angora-tooth fairy pillows while tugging strands of angora from a rabbit asleep in her lap.

“An extraordinary variety of concrete yard animals surrounded a display of bird feeders with expired Montana license plates folded over for roofs. A hearty woman with her fists on her hips offered English delphiniums, which, she explained again and again, had never been crossed with Pacific Giants, ‘not ever.’”

Olivia survives, apparently, and Briggs escapes what could have been a vicious circle (at least that’s the best I can do with the title). Later, in “Old Friends,” we meet John Briggs again, and this time he’s called upon to give shelter to a former college classmate with whom he’s kept in rather reluctant touch over the years.

But the friend now needs more than just shelter, and on this count Briggs fails — or may have failed, one never being quite sure with Mr. McGuane — and the friend is taken away and jailed. Briggs tired to expiate his guilt, but can’t; if he could, this wouldn’t be a McGuane story.

Most of the tales are set in Montana, but in “Ice” we meet a young boy from Michigan who seems to be the only one around who is in awe of the school drum major. A lesser writer would have gone with the homosexual stereotype. Not Thomas McGuane. This drum major is romancing his beautiful history teacher who’s married to the high school’s football coach (shades of Sonny in Larry McMurtry’s “The Last Picture Show”).

When coach finds out, he is not pleased: “One cold, dark afternoon when the windows of the gym were silver with reflected light, and the air was sour with sweat, Coach Andrews suddenly sprang into the bleachers, lifted the drum major into the air, and shook him like a rag doll. The drum major managed to retain his smile, even as his head was flung about.”

The younger boy, confused but also emboldened by this adult drama, decides “… to learn courage out on the ice, to avoid the specter of cowardice by skating all the way to Canada or, if the icebreaker had been through, to the Livingstone ship channel.” He doesn’t make it, of course, but he gains something from having made the attempt.

As with the drum major, one of the things you don’t get in a McGuane story is the predictable. In “North Coast,” two hikers are not simply nature enthusiasts, they are thieves of anthropological treasures, and, oh yes, they are also heroin addicts.

One of the central characters in the satirical “The Zombie” is described as “an escort girl and sometime police informant,” which hardly suggests a happy ending. And when Boston lawyer Homer Newland, now retired to Montana, invites an old flame to visit him, he too gets a bit more reality than he expected. As she steps off the plane, “Her smile was the first thing that caught his eye — it was drawn off center — causing her to remark, lightly, ‘I’ve had a stroke. Is it still okay?’”

Thomas McGuane is known for his satire, much of it quite dark. But this volume also contains several stories that are not dark at all, and one of them, “Miracle Boy,” had me laughing out loud. It’s the tale of a boy who, thanks to a single accidental event, gains a thoroughly undeserved reputation as a healer of last resort, or, as the boy, who narrates the story himself, puts it, “a worker of household wonders,” and then is called upon to do it again.

The result is a family portrait as funny as any I’ve ever read. It begins with the boy’s description of his father’s opinion of priests: “My father was an agnostic and fought the sponging clergy with vigor, remarking that he had “… fronted his last snockered prelate,’ and added, ‘Amazing how often it’s Crown Royal.’”

It ends, much differently, with: “The clouds on the horizon made a band of light on the deep green Atlantic, and the breakers that lifted and fell with such gravity might have drowned our conversation, if there had been any. We must not have felt the need.”

One of the best stories in the book is the longest, “The Refugee.” It takes place almost entirely in the Gulf of Mexico, on a sailboat manned by another typically McGuanian flawed human being. As so often happens, the first sentence pulls you right in: “Errol Healy was going sailing to evade custody in one of the several institutions recommended for his care.”

When his friends and even his boss tell him the trip, a “modest voyage from his berth in Cortez across the Gulf of Mexico to Key West was something he could handle,” he quickly agrees. What he doesn’t tell them is that his main reason for going is to seek the help of an old woman in Key West to whom he “… ascribed almost supernatural powers of healing.”

Here’s Errol’s main problem: “Years ago, he’d had a sailing accident. As a result, his closest friend, Raymond, was lost at sea and the meaning of Raymond’s death, nagging and irresolute, continued to consume him.” And during the interim he continued to consume increasingly large quantities of alcohol. On this trip, Errol hopes to expiate what he describes as a “do or die crisis.”

I will quickly admit that I know nothing about sailing, but if Mr. McGuane’s account of solo sailing in a storm isn’t accurate, I’ll eat a halyard (whatever that is). For example, “Errol half crawled into the cockpit from the companionway and snapped on his lifeline. Once the tiller was free again, the boat rose to the gusts and relieved some of the lateral pressure that had her on her side. The pool of water in the self-bailing cockpit roared through the scuppers and emptied quickly.

“The frontal storms that had met his requirements for a manageable challenge were beyond him now; in their place, the wind came in an unimpeded fetch from an open ocean in a scream. The incessant movement of the boat gave him the sense that they were being chased by the increasingly enormous waves, whose breaking crests gleamed unpleasantly.”

Great stuff. Buy this book. Read it. Enjoy.

John Greenya is a Washington writer.

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