Thomas McGuane’s lonely freaks

 

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.

Gallatin Canyon

Thomas McGuane

240 pages,

hardcover: $24.

Knopf, 2006.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors EMPLOYMENT TYPE: Part-time - Full-time, based...
  • HEALTHY CITIES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Healthy Cities Program Director leads and manages the Healthy Cities Program for the Arizona Chapter and is responsible for developing and implementing innovative, high...
  • CONSERVATION PROGRAM MANAGER
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Conservation Programs Manager Job Opening Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) Associate Director Job Posting Our Mission: Honoring the past and safeguarding the future of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument through science,...
  • UNIQUE, ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME ON ACREAGE NEAR MOSCOW, IDAHO
    Custom-built energy-efficient 3000 sqft two-story 3BR home, 900 sqft 1 BR accessory cottage above 2-car garage and large shop. Large horse barn. $1,200,000. See online...
  • OUTDOOR ADVENTURE BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Missoula Outdoor Learning Adventures (MOLA) - established and profitable outdoor adventure & education business in Missoula, Montana. Summer camp, raft & climb guide, teen travel,...
  • OJO SARCO FARM/HOME
    A wonderful country setting for a farm/work 1350s.f. frame home plus 1000 studio/workshop. 5 acres w fruit trees, an irrigation well, pasture and a small...
  • STEWARDSHIP COORDINATOR
    Join Skagit Land Trust (the Trust), a not-for-profit conservation organization based in Mount Vernon, Washington, and help protect land for people and wildlife. Skagit Land...
  • 2022 SEASONAL SCIENCE EDUCATOR
    The Mount St. Helens Institute Science Educator supports our science education and rental programs including day and overnight programs for youth ages 6-18, their families...
  • POLICY DIRECTOR
    Heart of the Rockies Initiative is seeking a Policy Director to lead and define policy efforts to advance our mission to keep working lands and...
  • CHIEF FINANCIAL OFFICER
    Self-Help Enterprises seeks an experienced and strategic CFO
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST - LAND PROTECTION FOCUS
    View full job description and how to apply at
  • RIVER EDUCATOR & GUIDE
    River Educator & Guide River Educator & Guide (Trip Leader) Non-exempt, Seasonal Position: Full-time OR part-time (early April through October; may be flexible with start/end...
  • LAND AND WATER CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    The Land and Water Conservation Director is a full-time salaried position with the Mountain Area Land Trust in Evergreen, CO. The successful candidate will have...
  • FOOD SYSTEMS ENVIRONMENTAL FELLOWSHIP
    If you were to design a sustainable society from the ground up, it would look nothing like the contemporary United States. But what would it...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is seeking an Executive Director who will lead RiGHT toward a future of continued high conservation impact, organizational...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Help protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Work hard, meet good people, make the world a better place!...
  • VERDE RIVER PROJECTS TECHNICIAN
    The Verde River Projects Technician (VRPT) provides technical assistance to Verde River Program staff in implementation of the Verde River Streamflow Monitoring Protocol. This consist...
  • 8 FIELD PROJECT SPECIALISTS (POSITION FORMERLY TITLED TRAIL CREW TECHNICAL ADVISOR)
    Are you passionate about environmental conservation and connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with outdoor leadership...
  • NEW BOOK:
    True Wildlife Tales From Boy to Man. Finding my voice to save wildlife in the Apache spirit. 365+ vivid colorful pictures. Buy on Amazon/John Wachholz