Grave dangers and satisfying ends

Review of ‘Crow Fair’ by Thomas McGuane.

 

Crow Fair
Thomas McGuane
267 pages,
hardcover:$25.95.
Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.

Gripping beginnings are said to be the key to successful short stories, but it’s the endings in Thomas McGuane’s Crow Fair that make this collection stand out. Punchy, surprising, nebulous and even shattering conclusions mark these stories, with finales that can be as spectacular as explosions. McGuane has authored more than a dozen other books, but he hasn’t published a story collection since the acclaimed Gallatin Canyon appeared, nine years ago.

In Crow Fair, the longtime Montana resident writes from his home state, pursuing the themes you’d expect to find in such a sparsely populated region: isolation, loneliness and rugged individualism. In “River Camp,” for example, two childhood friends who take a fishing trip to confront their faltering friendship end up facing grave dangers, including a lunatic guide, ravenous bears and death-trap rapids. The differences between the two men become starkly apparent in their reactions as they float away from their camp in a raft: “Tony thought that this was nature at its most benign, shepherding them away from the dreaded camp; but Jack, looking at the dark walls of trees enclosing the current, the ravens in the high branches, felt a malevolence in his bones.” 

Bears run past pack rafts in Kamishak Bay, Alaska.

Despite their vivid Western settings, these stories contain the kind of unexpected, quirky events that could happen anywhere: from the struggle to cope with an aging relative to something as dramatic as getting duped into a drug deal. In “A Long View to the West,” a used car salesman juggles his job with caring for a dying father, and in the collection’s title story, two brothers take turns visiting their mother at an assisted living facility, where her habit of “loudly free-associating about her amorous adventures” gets her banned from the common room during visiting hours.

In a collection that often seems preoccupied with death, McGuane’s darkly comedic style — together with a host of lively characters and surprise happenings — keeps the tone upbeat. If the knockout endings of these stories can help us understand anything about our lives, it’s that death can elicit a myriad of unexpected responses: from sorrow and confusion to a little leap of joy — and maybe, at times, just a feeling of relief.