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Out of luck

Tom McGuane polishes a fading west



Although there are hucksters, dreamers and long-shot dice rollers sprinkled up and down the eastern seaboard, people who really want a fresh start in this country go west. For the past 37 years, Thomas McGuane has been showing how this mythology operates like a siren song to Americans. Panama brought us a tale of drugged-up celebrity, reflecting McGuane’s years of decadence, while Keep the Change imagined a struggling artist washing up on a Montana ranch he’s not sure he really wants to own. The longer he has remained in Montana, the cleaner, the steelier, McGuane’s prose has become—as if the wind has sanded it down.

Gallatin Canyon, his latest collection of stories, features some of his most elegantly varnished work yet. Like the Irish novelist William Trevor, McGuane has folded, twisted and crammed entire family histories into these stories. Each sentence embodies a complicated swirl of familial valences and conflicted allegiances. And yet if you placed these stories in a wind tunnel, their drag coefficient would barely register.

The heroes of these stories are no one special—retirees or near-retirees trying to keep a low profile, still feeling the slippages of lust or greed, or loneliness. “Vicious Circle” tells the tale of a middle-age man who picks up a younger woman at a farmers’ market and winds up with more than he bargained for; in “Old Friends,” an attorney’s risky-living college roommate turns up on his doorstep with the law at his heels. The attorney briefly shelters the man from the police—and his ex-wife—then realizes he’s way too old for such shenanigans.

Although each story bears McGuane’s lean muscularity, with its deeply masculine cadences, there’s a pleasing variety of perspectives here. “Cowboy” unfolds in the voice of a ranch hand trying to make a fresh go of things on a ranch co-owned by a brother and sister. “Both of them was heavy smokers, to where a oxygen bottle was in sight,” the man notes. “So they joined a Smoke-Enders deal the Lutherans had, and this required ’em to put all their butts in a jar around their neck on a string. The old sumbitch liked this okay because he could just tap his ash right under his chin.”

Like Annie Proulx, McGuane has found a way to write of and about a people without his slapstick ever turning nasty, or into some kind of trailer-park peep show. That doesn’t mean he’ll let the changing landscape go, however. Several characters in this book return to Montana only to lament its ruination. In “Aliens,” a 75-year-old lawyer indulges a lifelong dream “and returned to live in the West,” only to discover that “Montana seemed like a place he had once read about in a dentist’s office.” The book’s title story includes a long riff about the way tourists have made the place dangerous.

“This combination of cumbersome commercial traffic and impatient private cars was a lethal mixture that kept our canyon in the papers, as it regularly spat out corpses. In my rearview mirror, I could see a line behind me that was just as long as the one ahead, stretching back, thinning, and vanishing around a green bend. There was no passing lane for several miles. A single amorous elk could have turned us all into twisted, smoking metal.”

That “amorous elk” is pure McGuane—comedy occurring at the nexus of human folly and the natural world. Reading these stories, you get the sense that McGuane shares the sentiments of a character in “Miracle Boy,” which recounts the death of an Irish matriarch and the chaos the death spreads across a wide Michigan family. “You’ll find this outfit,” the man says to his son, “in street shoes.” In other words, people who have cut themselves off from the natural world are not to be trusted, and become, in their own way, unnatural.

In “The Zombie,” a well-to-do bank manager attempts to get his virgin son laid. The grown son is a TV freak who lives entirely inside an artificial world of clever dialogue. He has explained to his father that sex does not matter to him. Still, the father hires an escort who turns out to double as a police informant. In short order the father is exposed, losing his job, and the son is left high and dry—still not entirely aware that he’s been deprived of something his father paid for.

From birth we contain the secret of our demise, and in Gallatin Canyon McGuane tells one story after another about characters struggling with that knowledge. It’s more poignant, somehow, when the heroes are older, but not always. In “North Coast,” two youngish heroin users track down an Indian relic in the Pacific Northwest, risking mauling by a bear in order to get the money for a year of drug use. “He kept his eyes on the lighted swatch of huckleberries near their path and saw the moving furrow in the bushes,” McGuane writes of his impertinently brave hero, “but an encounter never came.” Such luck, these stories powerfully remind us, eventually runs out.

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