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Thomas McGuane: Literary wrangler



By Doug Hare EBS Staff

Thomas McGuane has been writing for over five decades, and most of that time has been spent raising horses and cattle on his ranch just outside McLeod, Montana.

He doesn’t call himself a cowboy but he is a former champion horse cutter, an event where horse and rider are judged by their ability to separate cows from the herd. Like his longtime friend and fellow author Jim Harrison, McGuane is an accomplished outdoorsman who knows a thing or two about hunting and casting flies in southwest Montana.

His first three novels “The Sporting Club,” “The Bushwhacked Piano,” and “Ninety-two in the Shade” were all set in Florida and gained him a reputation as an extraordinarily talented novelist.

In fact, the only book of McGuane’s not reviewed favorably was “Panama,” a drug-fueled tale about debauchery in Key West that he still considers one of his best works.

Any good Montana bookshelf should have something with Thomas McGuane’s name on the spine. I would recommend his most recent collection of short stories: “Crow Fair.” More subdued than his earlier work, most of these stories explore flawed characters from Big Sky Country whose shortcomings lead to revelations, both for the character and reader alike.

Even in his old age, McGuane remains in good health and at the top of his form as a writer, his storytelling powers and artistic vision more refined than ever.

McGuane’s prose in “Crow Fair” is sparse, direct, and matter-of-fact. The sentences are taut and lean. But even with characters that are plain spoken, passive, or laconic, the stories capture the complexities of family life, aging, and solitude with an authenticity that very few writers can muster.

He does not try to idealize life in Montana, father-son relationships, romance, or the prospects of growing old. But his brand of realistic satire often manages a surreal effect.

“Weight Watchers” examines a father going through a divorce with a dark humor that blends the comic and tragic seamlessly. This story in particular resembles the comic stylings of Mark Twain, but the cathartic moment is both jarring and somber. McGuane is at his best writing about father-son relationships.

“Shaman” is a poignant piece given recent national debates about law enforcement and gun violence. After a senseless shooting by a local sheriff, the author in his typical deadpan style writes, “Dan Sheare from the Ford dealership said it was like they had shot the Easter Bunny.”

Almost every story in the collection has an illumination of the universality of the human condition and the particularity of living in modern-day Montana. Give McGuane a chance and he’ll be sure to rope you in.

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

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