McGuane is a storyteller, and he just can’t resist a
good laugh. Discussing how life is inherently absurd —
a theme that runs through much of his work — he asks,
"What do you think a Martian would think if he saw
people having sex?" and then launches into a tale
about how his Irish Catholic mother explained sex to him
when he was about 6 years old, after they’d seen saw
two dogs mating outside the grocery store.
asked what was going on," McGuane says, "and
she explained it to me in the Irish manner: ‘The
little one is sick, and the big one is pushing her to
stories in McGuane’s latest collection are somewhat
more complex than that little anecdote, but they’re
equally funny, bathed in insight, irony and a dark,
knowing humor. His third story collection after "To
Skin a Cat" and "Gallatin Canyon,"
"Crow Fair" (Knopf, $25.95) ranks among his
best work, with stories set in Montana that prod and
peel apart family bonds that may seem fragile but tie us
together even when we’d rather they didn’t.
so the brothers-in-law in the black comedy "River
Camp" argue about real and imagined slights even
though they have far more pressing matters to worry
about (their fishing guide may be insane, plus bears).
The boy in "Hubcaps" comes up with a unique
way to cope with his parents’ alcoholism ("By
late afternoon, Owen’s parents were usually having
their first cocktails"). The narrator of
"Grandma and Me" wants to blame all his
problems — the shiftlessness, the DUIs — on the old
lady. "I knew that thought was a tough sell which
defied common sense," he says, "but it was
gathering plausibility for me."
who grew up in Michigan but has lived in Montana for
decades, has long been fascinated with blood ties. He’s
best known for such outrageous,
sex-booze-and-drug-fueled novels as "Panama"
and "Ninety-Two in the Shade," but even in
those howling narratives — both set in Key West — he
wrestled with the complexity of familial relationships
(as well as the more romantic sort of entanglements).
"When I was young, we used to dive into the
swimming pool from the highest board on moonless nights,
without looking to see if there was water in the pool,
knowing it was emptied twice a month," he writes in
"Panama," widely considered his most
autobiographical (and often called his best) novel.
"I felt the same blind arc through darkness when I
spoke to my father."
spend our whole lives trying to understand our
parents," McGuane, now 75, says. "We’re in a
little play, locked into highly developed personalities.
The characters in the drama are Mom, Dad and the sibs.
So when you think about dramatic situations or writing
some kind of narrative, you have these archetypal
figures hovering over you. Sometimes you just don’t
win that war. The story ‘Hubcaps,’ that had a lot of
my life in it, but instead of being a bellicose
Republican businessman like my father I converted the
father into a guy with a plumbing supply service."
evolution as a writer has been an interesting one. He
has written novels and nonfiction including the essay
collections "Some Horses" and "The
Longest Silence: A Life in Fishing" (he remains a
fly fishing fanatic and vows to get back to the Keys,
though he isn’t sure he can stand the sight of cruise
ships from Mallory Square). In the 1970s he dabbled in
Hollywood screenwriting, writing scripts for the films
"Rancho Deluxe" and "The Missouri
Breaks," which starred Marlon Brando and Jack
Nicholson. He even wrote and directed a version of
"Ninety-Two in the Shade" with Peter Fonda and
during this period, he earned the excellent nickname
"Captain Berserko," as fine a legacy as anyone
could wish for.
did have some lively years," he says now. "I
was sex crazed like everybody else. … but what’s
wrong with fun? Some of my stuff got a little too well
known, but I don’t really feel like apologizing for
this. I had a marvelous time."
time, though, McGuane’s work has shifted from the
brash free-for-all style of the early books to such
novels as "Nothing But Blue Skies,"
"Driving on the Rim" and "The Cadence of
Grass," which examine a changing West and its
effect on those who live there.
one of these tremendously gifted writers who has
evolved," says novelist Carl Hiaasen, who first
corresponded with McGuane when he was starting to write
books himself and later became a friend. "I started
reading him with ‘The Bushwhacked Piano’ and ‘The
Sporting Club.’ ‘Ninety-Two in the Shade’ was the
tipping point for me. That was kind of my world, the
outdoor world of the Keys. Over the years he’s
changed, and the trajectory of his life has changed. But
he’s still got this incredible gift for language and
humor. He writes diabolically funny stuff, and the
intelligence in the writing is exceptional. … If you’re
a fellow writer, you read him, and you just shake your
agrees that his work has changed over the years.
had this job for 45 years," he says. "You
ought to evolve in that time. I think one of the things
that made it change is I don’t live among very
sophisticated people. I felt a little pressure to write
in a way people I know could read. Then I myself have
developed a greater interest in directness. I’ve been
telling people, seeing these very long novels coming out
now, that we should have an NBA shot clock once they
start a paragraph. Life is short."
though, he sees his work as rumbling a bit against the
really do think if you live in a place like Montana
there’s an official literature, the Big Sky, all these
things about cowboys and Indians and ranchers and
pioneers and homesteaders. It’s as though the Chamber
of Commerce was picking the book list. I was always
frustrated. It didn’t correspond to anything you see
on a day-to-day basis, no pizza parlors, no secretaries
going to work. … Montana sees itself as a ranching
state, but only 2 percent of the people are in ranching.
I did feel that I had my back bowed against the official
form of western writing.
was in the cattle business for 30 or 40 years, and I
have friends who were professional rodeo riders. They
always got a truck with the big back seat and a sun
roof, and they’d put all the potheads under the sun
roof and the boozers up front where they didn’t need
such good ventilation. That’s not what you read in the
official rodeo literature."