Writing from the big country

McLEOD, Montana – Thomas McGuane, whose new novel, “Driving on the Rim,” came out recently, is the only member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters who is also in the National Cutting Horse Association Hall of Fame. Yet he claims not to be a real rancher.

“All the ranchers I know have had back surgery, operations on their rotator cuffs,” he said recently. “They all have new knees. I’d like to think I belong to that breed, but I don’t.”

But neither is McGuane a hobbyist or a dude rancher. Together with his wife, Laurie, he raises black Angus cattle here on a 810-hectare spread in the foothills of the Absaroka mountains in south-central Montana, country where the sky really is big: a vast blue dome under which a sea of grass surges back and forth.

McGuane also breeds and raises cutting horses and, at 70, still competes in cutting competitions. Trained to cut, or separate, a cow from its herd, cutting horses are as quick at changing directions as basketball point guards, and at least one of McGuane’s horses, a retired champion named King, is more intelligent than most newspaper reporters.

Tall, raw-boned and authentically Western looking, McGuane is a New Englander by heritage but grew up outside Detroit. He discovered the West while working on a Wyoming ranch in high school and moved to Montana in the late ‘60s, buying a small ranch with money he made from his first novel, “The Sporting Club.” In the methodical way he does just about everything, he set about learning to ride, rope and herd cattle.

Montana when he moved there was still the Wild West, he recalled; he lived through (and profited from) the ‘80s real-estate boom, when the state became a fashionable destination for wealthy people wanting to rough it, or pretending to; and now, he said, “We seem to have come out on the other side, and the economy is turning ranchers into an endangered species.”

His new novel, his 10th (he has also published two collections of stories), is partly picaresque, about a Montanan named Irving Berlin Pickett, known as Berl, who, despite being a medical doctor, remains a kind of bumbling naif, not quite at home in the world. But like much of McGuane’s recent writing, it’s also partly about the collision of the Old West and the New. Pickett finds himself involved in a very contemporary malpractice prosecution but also spends a lot of time hunting and fishing and thinking about the old days.

McGuane himself sometimes appears torn about which West he belongs to.

“There’s a view of Montana writing that seems stage-managed by the Chamber of Commerce – it’s all about writers like A.B. Guthrie and Ivan Doig,” he said, referring to two authors of historical novels about a rugged, frontier Montana. “It used to bother me that nobody had a scene where somebody was delivering a pizza.”

On the other hand, McGuane has occasionally voiced misgivings about what he views as the narrow-minded New York critical establishment, including The New York Times, where his novels have sometimes been sceptically reviewed.

“Everybody in flyover country believes they’ve been screwed by the East,” he said. “I try not to bellyache about it.”

Recalling his induction into the American Academy last spring, he added, “I could tell that a lot of the older members were worried that I was going to be a mad dog, or unmannerly or something.”

Perhaps those elderly members, and even some of the younger ones, were thinking back to the period when McGuane was known as Captain Berserko. This was in the ‘70s when, after a promising start as a novelist, he went to Hollywood. He wrote one very good screenplay, “Rancho Deluxe;” one that proved to be a legendary flop, “Missouri Breaks,” and also directed the movie version of his own novel “92 in the Shade.” He was married briefly to Margot Kidder and had a much-publicized affair with Elizabeth Ashley.

Novelist Jim Harrison, one of McGuane’s oldest friends, was around in those days, and he recalled recently that their mutual exploits “did not exclude actresses, waitresses, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll.” But Harrison also pointed out that since the early ‘80s, when McGuane “beat the family curse and quit drinking,” he has become happier and happier.

“At our age you sort of accumulate a lot of scar tissue,” he added, “and the cold wind of the world just blows over your head.” When he is in Montana, McGuane rides almost every day. He also hunts and fly-fishes, frequently darting out of the remodelled bunkhouse where he writes to flick a few casts into the nearby river. But of all the things he does the one that still excites him most, he said, is writing, which he fits in around his ranching life, getting up early in the morning sometimes, working after dinner and in the winter months, when there are fewer chores.

“Literature is the ditch I’m going to die in,” he said. “It’s still the thing I care most about.”

After a period of 10 years or so when he didn’t write much fiction, and instead published well-regarded books about fishing and horses, he has returned to it with renewed enthusiasm.

“There’s nothing like the burn you get when it’s going well, when things feel incandescent in your writing,” he said, adding that he has learned that a novel has only one obligation: to be entertaining.

“I wrote a lot of ‘Driving on the Rim’ by giving myself the gift of being just as eccentric as I felt like,” he said, and the book, irrepressibly comic and optimistic even when it verges on the tragic, is full of oddballs and free spirits, including Berl’s Aunt Silbie, who introduces him to sex when he is just 14.

As one of the characters remarks, “Giving freaks a pass is the oldest tradition in Montana.”

“Driving on the Rim” also features, not surprisingly, some gorgeous wilderness landscapes and a hunting dog who is as lovingly described as any of the human characters. “I guess I’m a lower-case romantic,” McGuane said. “Like everyone, I have that general sense that we’ve been cast adrift. It’s almost banal to say it, it’s so obvious. But at the same time, living out here I have sense that I’m living in a world that hasn’t quite changed. I see it in some of the kids who work here – they’re still so in touch with natural world.”

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