The mythic American West has a firm grip on our country’s psyche, from the enduring appeal of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove to today’s popular Yellowstone TV series starring Kevin Costner. Although 150 years separate their two storylines, this much stays true: Land is king. Cattle are prized. Wimps don’t stand a chance.
Into this landscape walked Thomas McGuane by way of Michigan, Key West, and Montana. He’s been writing for over fifty years, but (unbelievably!) my first exposure to him was through this month’s fiction podcast from the New Yorker, in which a well-known author chooses a favorite short story from the magazine’s archives to read aloud. “Gallatin Canyon,” from 2003, begins as a road trip.
The man telling the story needs to get from Montana, where he lives, to the little town of Rigby, Idaho, to close on the sale of a car dealership he owns but no longer wants. It was supposed to be a passive investment, but he gets twenty calls a day that he has no idea how to answer and ends up feeling like a BS machine. “No investment is passive,” says Louise, the woman he’s been dating these last few years. She’s along for the ride, and she’s the one who said they should drive through Gallatin Canyon because the route through Ennis has twelve miles of construction and rodeo traffic. He reluctantly agrees knowing that the scenic two-lane roadway pits gawking tourists against impatient drivers, “a lethal mixture that kept our canyon in the papers as it regularly spat our corpses. . .a single amorous elk could have turned us all into twisted smoking metal.”
Lurking behind the potentially lethal drive itself are his two larger concerns. He wants to piss off the buyer in Rigby so he can sell the car dealership to a buyer from Atlanta for more money. Also, he wants more of an emotional commitment from Louise, a first for him. He finds her beautiful. “He adored her when she was a noun but was alarmed when she was a verb,” and she was usually a verb—a lawyer with her own business and an ex-husband she’s happy to have put in her rear-view mirror.
There’s a lot of humor in this story, as well as many twists and turns that only a spoilsport would divulge. But listening to this story, it’s clear we’re in the hands of a master storyteller who is intimately familiar with the western landscape: it’s beauty and long-lasting appeal, and the conflicts that arise when more and more people want access to both.
The narrator and Louise banter about water rights—her legal specialty. “According to the law, water has no reality except its use,” she says. “Every time some misguided soul suggests that fish need it, it ends up in the state Supreme Court.” He views the relationship to water in their part of the country like war. “And in war lives are lost.”
They pass West Yellowstone, which seems entirely given over to the well-being of the snowmobile. He thinks: “By winter, school children would be petitioning futilely to control the noise at night so they could do their school work, and the town would turn a blind eye as a cloud of smoke arose to gas residents, travelers, and park rangers alike.” He finds it inconceivable that this level of recreation could be seen as an inalienable right.
When the narrator first met Louise, he was “pedaling satellite dishes in towns where the highest grossing business was a meth-amphetamine tent camp out in the sagebrush.” Now, as commerce has grown around him, he’s moved up in the world. He has the car dealership, storage, and tool rentals. But he worries, even though there’s no “implied hierarchy” between them, whether it could possibly work with Louise in the long run.
“Gallatin Canyon” was selected for the podcast and read by the young 30-something author Téa Obreht, who’s written two best-selling novels. One of her own short stories, “Items in Need of Protective Enclosure,” takes place in the American West in the near-future, and it’s one of my all-time favorites. (discussed in my blog in Aug. 2019)
Scouring the internet for more on the talented Mr. McGuane wasn’t difficult. The Hemingway analogy isn’t hyperbole, although the resemblance between the two men has more to do with their love of sport and the outdoors—and a succession of wives—than it does with their writing style.
Thomas McGuane was only twenty-two when Hemingway died, but McGuane, too, would go on to have early success with his first novel, published when he was still in his 20s. Today McGuane is eighty-one and still writing. Still handsome, too, and he’s been married to his third wife for over forty years—the sister of his friend from his Key West days, the singer Jimmy Buffett. McGuane, like Hemingway, was raised in the midwest. Ernest never went to college–he was itching to get to WWI. Thomas graduated from Michigan State, got a Masters from the Yale School of Drama (could be why he’s so good with dialogue) and earned a prestigious fellowship at Stanford.
After a scary car-totaling crash on an icy highway, McGuane took stock of his novel-writing career and switched to screenplays. His first, based on one of his novels, starred Peter Fonda and Margot Kidder, and he bought a small Montana ranch with his earnings. Wife #1 later married Fonda and he was married to Kidder, but only briefly. He wrote more screenplays–one starring Brando and Jack Nicholson–and earned a wild-man reputation in Hollywood. After marrying for the third time, he settled in Montana and gave up drinking. There were cattle and horses to raise, steers to rope, children to nurture, and more writing to do: short stories and essays and novels. How many acclaimed authors are also enshrined in the Cutting Horse Association Members Hall of Fame and the Fly Fishing Hall of Fame?
Coincidentally (or maybe not), McGuane has a new story in the May 10 issue of the New Yorker. Set in Montana, “Balloons” is about a love triangle and the woman who got away. It’s also funny, with twists—and a touch of poignant. This American Cowboy can write!