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
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE: NEAR CHRICAHUA NATIONAL PARK
    2 (20 acre sites): 110 miles from Tucson:AZ Native trees: Birder's heaven: dark skies: Creek: borders State lease & National forest: /13-16 inches of rain...
  • DIRECTOR - SONORAN DESERT INN & CONFERENCE CENTER
    The Sonoran Desert Inn & Conference Center is a non-profit lodging and event venue in Ajo, Arizona, located on the historic Curley School Campus. We...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field Seminars for adults: cultural and natural history of the Colorado Plateau. With guest experts, local insights, small groups, and lodge or base camp formats....
  • PLANNED GIVING OFFICER
    National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the nation's oldest and largest national parks nonprofit advocacy organization seeks a Planned Giving Officer. Do you find energy in...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Methow Valley Citizens Council has a distinguished history of advocating for progressive land use and environmental values in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County...
  • ACTING INDIGENOUS AFFAIRS DESK EDITOR
    High Country News is seeking an Acting Indigenous Affairs Editor to oversee the work of our award-winning Indigenous Affairs Desk while our editor is on...
  • GRANTS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation seeks an enthusiastic, team-oriented and knowledgeable Grants Program Director to work from their home in Montana. Established in 1983, the Cinnabar Foundation...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Artemis Program Manager will work with National Wildlife Federation sporting and public lands staff to change this dynamic, continue to build upon our successful...
  • ALASKA SEA KAYAK BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Well-known and successful sea kayak, raft, hike, camp guiding & water taxi service. Sale includes everything needed to run the business, including office & gear...
  • MEMBERSHIP AND EVENTS PROGRAM COORDINATOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a detail-oriented and enthusiastic Membership and Events Coordinator to join our small, but mighty-fun team to oversee our membership...
  • PROGRAM DEVELOPMENT FACILITATOR
    ABOUT THE HIGH DESERT MUSEUM Since opening in 1982, HIGH DESERT MUSEUM has brought together wildlife, culture, art and natural resources to promote an understanding...
  • LAND STEWARD, ARAVAIPA
    Steward will live on-site in housing provided by TNC and maintains preserve areas frequented by the visiting public and performs land management activities. The Land...
  • DEVELOPMENT WRITER
    Who We Are: The Nature Conservancy's mission is to protect the lands and waters upon which all life depends. As a science-based organization, we create...
  • CONNECTIVITY SCIENCE COORDINATOR
    Position type: Full time, exempt Location: Bozeman preferred; remote negotiable Compensation: $48,000 - $52,000 Benefits: Major medical insurance, up to 5% match on a 401k,...
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT
    ArenaLife is looking for an Executive Assistant who wants to work in a fast-paced, exciting, and growing organization. We are looking for someone to support...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Driggs, ID based non-profit. Full time. Full job description available at tvtap.org. Submit cover letter and resume to [email protected]
  • ENVIRONMENTAL AND CONSTRUCTION GEOPHYSICS
    - We find groundwater, buried debris and assist with new construction projects for a fraction of drilling costs.
  • SPRING MOUNTAINS SOLAR OFF GRID MOUNTAIN HOME
    Located 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, Nevada in the pine forest of Lee Canyon at 8000 feet elevation. One of a kind property surrounded...
  • MAJOR GIFTS MANAGER - MOUNTAIN WEST, THE CONSERVATION FUND
    Cultivate, solicit and steward a portfolio of 75-125 donors.
  • NATURE'S BEST IN ARAVAIPA CANYON
    10 acre private oasis in one of Arizona's beautiful canyons. Fully furnished, 2123 sq ft architectural custom-built contemporary home with spectacular views and many extras....