For acynic, the novelist Thomas McGuane is quite the sunny optimist, at least onevidence of his latest protagonist, one Irving Berlin Pickett, M.D. The latterdoes pretty much everything a man could possibly do to discourage theeventuality of a happy ending—using up about forty years of life in theprocess— but finally gets there anyway, to the all-consoling redemptions oflove.
There is much that needsredeeming. In a first-person narrative (the second time McGuane has used themode, after 1978’s Panama), the housepainter-cum-doctor, a self-described “ninny”but actually an acute observer of both general human and peculiarly Americanfolly, recounts innumerable instances of indiscriminate coupling (wives offriends, nurses, patients, even an aunt) and wise-ass foolhardiness. Amonginstances of this last are uncomfortably close involvements with suicides andill-advised retaliations against rivals of all stripes. For much of the book,he writes his own cautionary tale against moving through life as a purelyreactive being who lacks a considered code of morality. It naturally makes hima magnet for character-trying events: “Nowadays, experiences came at melike bugs hitting the windshield.”
But what fascinating bugsthey are, at least before they are so unceremoniously squashed: McGuane is aself-assured writer of great comedic powers, and he has an exquisitelycalibrated sense of how far to go before dropping over the edge of the absurd. Healso comes close to writing passages that are comedy-club ready:
Theday came when Mrs. Vaughn discovered the uses to which the cabin cruiserwas being put, and she divorced [T. Sam, a friend]. “Miss Lillian” hadbeen named after her. He renamed the boat “Miss Ruby” after a subsequentlady friend, then “Miss Alice,” then “Miss Judy,” and soon the last time her transom was repainted, she was called “Queen for a Day.”
As thelocale of the story is Montana, McGuane’s home and the compelling subject ofmuch of his work, he is also customarily and seriously poetic about the naturalworld, 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 tonguesand used to accost passersby on the street with visions of her god.
When the many tendrils ofthe story threaten to grow beyond the edges of any single narrative—leafing offthe main line of the narrator’s already complex tales are those of his father’sexperiences in World War II, internecine machinations at the clinic in which hepractices, and smaller shoots that concern riding horses and painting houses andbirdwatching—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 arefinally embraced.
“Have I learnedanything?” Pickett at one point asks, and if we know the answer is “Notreally, because you just happen to be a lucky bastard,” we ourselves havelearned much. The paramount lesson is that Thomas McGuane writes like awell-aimed pistol shoots: fast, true, and straight to the heart.