Driving on the Rim
Thomas McGuane
320 pages, hardcover: $24.95.
Knopf, October.

It's a bit like finessing the knots out of tangled fishing line or fitting numbers into a Sudoku puzzle: Your goal is to see the whole thing in its proper order. But that's just one reason to keep reading to the end of Driving on the Rim, Thomas McGuane's time-hopping 10th novel. There are plenty of others: McGuane's delightful use of words (Saul Bellow once called him a "language star"), the way he encapsulates a character with one compact sentence ("Wilmot was a high-end idiot savant with Neanderthal social views and the air of continuing crisis"), and his sharp insight into the human condition ("My story was nearly all I had").

McGuane's dark picaresque is narrated by Irving Berlin Pickett, who is "well aware of the absurdity of (his) name." Pickett -- the spawn of a patriotic evangelical Christian and her closet-atheist husband -- notes that he was born in "an era when breasts just happened, were not built to suit." But whether real or fake, any breasts Pickett meets push him beyond his meager social skills. His relationships with women range from casual to ruinous, which is understandable, perhaps, in the aftermath of his teenage sexscapades with a seductive aunt.

Although a plausible twist of fate allows young Pickett to migrate from low-class teenager to successful physician, he's still a bit of a goober. So when a former lover's husband pressures authorities to bring manslaughter charges against Pickett after a patient dies, the doctor does all the wrong things.

In a sort of post-indictment panic, Pickett blunders his way across the Pacific Northwest and southwest Montana, looking for comfort in fly-fishing, bird hunting, and a thrillingly dysfunctional relationship with a female outlaw. The aftermath of his destructive choices, however, is often interrupted by self-reflective episodes. "Everyone must look back over their lives and consider what the big mistakes were," Pickett thinks. "If this spell of forced leisure had a mission, it seemed to be this review as to how I got to this place."

Driving on the Rim does more than deliver a story. It demonstrates McGuane's remarkable ability to create and then untangle multiple plotlines, bringing us, once again, to wonder at his ability to create uniquely hilarious characters that yet remind us so much of ourselves.