One of our most distinctive short story writers, Flannery O’Connor, famously opined, “Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.” Her subject was the metaphysical and geographical American South, its spirit inextricable from its landscape and history. Similarly, Montana novelist Thomas McGuane’s latest book, Gallatin Canyon, chronicles the West as it takes up space inside his characters and suffuses the air around them, for better and worse.
“All the mean people, all the open space, seemed to be closing in upon him at once,” writes McGuane of Homer Newland, an ex-Bostonian who moves to a romanticized Montana to retire in “Aliens,” one of the book’s 10 stories. This malevolence too often partners the beauty of McGuane’s West.
Thomas McGuane is our Flannery O’Connor of the New West, an expert on a loneliness distinctive to our region’s altitudes and seasons, beauty and misery. McGuane knows who we are – not just natives but transplants — the hikers and dopers, oilmen and real estate sharks. He knows us with clarity and precision, and his 14th book casts a certain charity upon even the drunks and suicides, the ranchette millionaires and petty thieves. His stories focus on men in lonely places — literally, figuratively or both — who try to extricate themselves from bleakness. Whether they succeed depends on will and fate and the measure of their need for alcohol — or the extent to which alcohol has mutilated the lives of people they love.
In “Old Friends,” a former college roommate appears on the narrator’s Montana doorstep, seeking to evade the law. But the friend has evolved into an unsympathetic old man: “He was a vampire coming to life at sundown; with each drink pale flames arose beneath his skin.”
In the surprising penultimate story “The Refugee,” the narrator acknowledges “It had been half his life since he’d known what hope felt like.” This story packs the heft and intensity of a novel. Unlike most of the other stories, it is not set in the geographic West, but it is suffused with the kind of alienated loneliness pervading Gallatin Canyon. Its protagonist, Errol Healy, nods to Ernest Hemingway throughout his perilous, alcohol-drenched passage from Key West to Cuba. Like Hemingway, McGuane concerns himself with a man’s ability to survive the harshest consequences of his choices and to survive them alone. “The Refugee” probes the core of human fragility and the need for hope. Early on in his voyage east, in a smooth-sailing moment of sobriety, the narrator writes: “It occurred to Errol that his drinking days were behind him. Oh, joy! Not another shit-faced, snockered, plastered, oiled, loaded, bombed, wasted minute ever again! No more guilt, remorse, rehab or jail! Free at last!”
Even as we rejoice with Errol, we know this substance-free moment is tenuous, and time will shortly see him wasted again. Errol, on a quest for healing, sails toward Cuba. He remembers the death of his best friend at sea, the circumstances of which remain hazy to the reader, though what Errol finds there will shock and strangely soothe him. Redemption is possible in McGuane’s world, though the reader rarely foresees the particular form it will take.
“To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man,” O’Connor continues, “and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological.” In McGuane’s West, it is also spiritual and at times even blackly humorous. The drunk son-in-law in “Aliens” falls off a balcony to become a paraplegic, then runs for mayor, joking about it with his estranged wife, who tells him, “Shit-faced in a wheelchair is a look whose time will never come.” But in Gallatin Canyon, it just might.
The author writes columns for The Denver Post’s Colorado Voices series. Her new novel, Resurrection City: A Novel of Jonestown, will be published next year.