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Cowboy’s Quill: Thomas McGuane

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Living(ston) legend

By Doug Hare EBS Staff

Books by Thomas McGuane hold a privileged place on my bookshelf. For 40 years, many of them spent on his ranch outside of McLeod, Montana, he has been producing not only acclaimed novels but also short stories that have established him as a true master of the form, chronicling the fringes of American culture from Key West, Florida, to Big Sky Country.

On March 6, McGuane will release “Cloudbursts: Collected and New Stories,” comprised of selections from his first three short story collections: “To Skin a Cat” (1986); “Gallatin Canyon” (2006); “Crow Fair” (2015); and eight new stories. Now in one place, we can look back on his lifelong attempt to make sense of the emotional dislocations and loneliness of backwater America.

“Cloudbursts” showcases a brilliant writing career. Each story is remarkable in its own way, demonstrating McGuane’s range and evolution as a writer, his earlier work more exuberant and experimental, his most recent more cautious, precise, and then suddenly tempestuous—as the title of the collection suggests.

I’m not sure exactly what his secret is, but I haven’t come across many other writers who can conjure the surreal out of the mundane with such fluidity. Awash in the broken dreams and bad decisions of outcasts, misfits, and malcontents trying to make their peace with the world, McGuane can make seemingly unrelated events and images cohere in a single paragraph—a maestro of extracting order out of chaos.

Never read anything by McGuane? I’d recommend the short story he published in The New Yorker last year called “Riddle.” (An audio recording by the author and a text version are available on the magazine’s website.)

It begins, benignly enough, with an old cowboy stumbling around Main Street in Livingston after the bars have closed: “There weren’t many of these fellows left, the ones whom horses had broken so often in accidents far from help, their hands still as hard as lariats. They kept their worn-out Stetsons so you wouldn’t confuse them with railroaders.”

Then there is a disgruntled architect, a car accident, a carjacking, an unexpected sexual tryst, and a reckoning with a police officer all in the span of three pages. In the final paragraph, with the suddenness of a cloudburst, the imagery of the battered old cowboy hobbling down the deserted street takes on a whole new meaning, somehow illuminating the murky vicissitudes of the human condition in plain sight.

Like most of his best work, “Riddle” is a precise, but nonformulaic incantation invoking both the humor and pathos of the human condition.

Doug Hare is the distribution director for Outlaw Partners. He studied philosophy and American literature at Princeton and Harvard universities.

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