March 29, 2015

“Crow Fair and Other Stories” by Thomas McGuane

Reviewed by Mark Lindquist
Special to The Seattle Times

By outliving Raymond Carver, Thomas McGuane became one of our best living American short-story writers. Now, Captain Berserko, as McGuane was known in the 1970s, just has to outlive Richard Ford to claim the crown. 

In a recent interview with NPR, McGuane said, “I think there’s only one interesting story … and that’s struggle.” This book contains 17 variations on that story, all set in Montana, where McGuane, author of novels, essays, screenplays and short stories, lives, writes and raises cattle. 

In the first piece, “Weight Watchers,” McGuane takes us straight into the land of the losers and alienated. The narrator’s father moves back in with him because, “My mother had thrown him out again, this time for his weight. She’d said that he was insufficiently committed to his weight-loss journey and that if he hit two-fifty she wouldn’t live with him anymore.”

While the father struggles to lose literal weight, the narrator, a middle-aged man with no intention to ever marry, struggles to lose the emotional weight of the baggage his parents dumped on him. “As a kid,” the narrator explains, “I viewed my parents as an anthropologist might view them and spent my time as I sometimes spend it now, trying to imagine where on earth they came from.” 

Like many of McGuane’s characters, his complaints are disguised as stoic non-complaints. “It’s not that there’s anything wrong with my ability to communicate: I have a cell phone, but I only use it to call out.”

In “Hubcaps,” which could have been titled Portrait of a Criminal as a Young Man, a boy’s affection for baseball is slowly soaked into nothingness by his heavy drinking parents. Like the alienated adult of “Weight Watchers,” the boy is given free rein by his egocentric parents, but it’s a freedom that leads into a trap. 

The alcoholic grandson of “Grandma and Me” — there’s a lot of drinking in these stories — leaves his blind grandmother at a river bank so that he can have a drink and chase a dead body he saw float by in the river. I liked Grandma, who “was convinced every empty building housed a meth lab,” but her grandson prefers the company of the corpse, which he strangely identifies with.

“Prairie Girl” is one of the few stories to focus on an arguably successful character. “Mary Elizabeth was an ambitious woman, but she was not cynical,” McQuane writes. Mary, a former prostitute, marries the gay son of a banker and begins her “ascent from vulgarity and survival.” In the end of the story, her son is going off to college. 

“She watched him as he looked out the window at the prairie. She thought he was beautiful, and that was enough. It didn’t hurt that the car was big and smelled new and hugged the road with authority. She said to herself, as she had since she was a girl: ‘I can do this.’ ” 

Even the losers, as Tom Petty noted, get lucky sometime. This is especially true in the masterfully layered world of McGuane. He enriches every life he renders. Even when his characters don’t get lucky, they get great lines like this: “Telling someone to relax is not as aggressive as shooting them, but it’s up there.”