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On the Big Two-Hearted River

Here’s the protean Jim Harrison—poet, novelist, essayist, screenwriter, hunter, fisherman, farmer, food-panegyrist, and gourmand—musing about Ernest Hemingway in one of the essays in his collection Just Before Dark:

…The most intelligent among us tend to be fans of some sort but we don’t really want our writers to act like sports stars or screen heroes, don’t want the sacred line between poet and hero to be confused.

Apropos of which, consider what the actress Elizabeth Ashley had to say when she first met Jim Harrison’s good friend Tom McGuane, which happened on the set of the movie Rancho Deluxe, near Livingston, Montana, around 1975:

He was smart and funny. He could give you the back story on something in just four words. He could tell you some of the best outlaw stories ever, and in the next paragraph discuss Turgenev.
That’s just my style.
He was a writer.
I’ve always had a weakness for writers.
He was a psychedelic cowboy.
That’s right up my alley.
He was a gonzo raver.
I like them the best.

The hearty love affair which soon ensued between the lovely actress and the gonzo raver was, in Ms. Ashley’s words, “the love affair I had been wanting even before I knew what a love affair was.”

In the mid-Seventies, in Montana and elsewhere, Tom McGuane was so full of beans that he may not have noticed that he was dancing over the line that his friend and fishing buddy Jim Harrison would later define. Overnight, it seemed, Hollywood called and Mc-Guane answered, writing three movies that were produced in little more than a year: the appealing Rancho Deluxe (1975); the less appealing Ninety-Two in the Shade, same year (this one, his Key West story, he also directed); and The Missouri Breaks (1976). For a year or two Hollywood was rife with Tom stories, as they were called, but the films set no box offices on fire and McGuane went, in the blink of an eye, from being a quick study to being an expensive luxury, even though the last film I can remember seeing his name on, Tom Horn (1980), was the best of the lot—at least it was free of the silliness that diminishes both Rancho Deluxe and The Missouri Breaks. It was as if McGuane had ridden the up-escalator of Hollywood fame, swung his leg over, as he might when mounting a horse, and gone right back down on the down-escalator.

Fortunately, he still had Montana. In western and central Montana throughout the Seventies and Eighties the flames of talent danced high, not all of them fed by Tom McGuane. A good many interesting writers were strung out in irregular formation along the Missoula–Bozeman–Livingston axis. At the University of Montana in Missoula, the poet Richard Hugo still held sway, assisted by a covey of writers that included, at various times, the novelists James Crumley, Max Crawford, William Hjorstberg, James Welch, and others, among them the elegant essayist William Kittredge. Richard Ford was in and out of the state, writing, hunting, fishing, as was Professor Norman Mclean of the University of Chicago, author of that moving late work of fiction A River Runs Through It. Jim Harrison, too, was in and out, hauling his bird dogs around in eternal hope of feathered victims, and the painter Russell Chatham was hard at work on his somber landscapes. The old terror and one-man wild bunch Sam Peckinpah had a ranch near Livingston—it’s now owned, I believe, by the actor Dennis Quaid. Peter Fonda came, and various actresses; even Jack Nicholson—in my view an unlikely countryman—was said to have put in an appearance, perhaps visiting Russell Chatham, who opened and still operates a restaurant in Livingston.

Chatham’s Dark Waters, an elegant collection of (mostly) fishing reminiscences, and Jim Harrison’s The Raw and the Cooked, which Ms. Ashley, should she read it, might call a gonzo food rant, both contain echoes of that time. Both books are excellent reads, though it’s annoying that these two men, tolerant and occasionally even reckless in day-to-day life, become as austere as Trappists when it comes to cooking duck, a discipline not to be taken lightly in Livingston or its environs, it would seem.

Montanans, blessed as they are with an abundance of fine bars, are rarely disinclined to get rowdy; quite a few probably get a good deal rowdier than Tom McGuane, and yet in the late Seventies Tom stories continued to roll like thunderheads across the northern plains, most of them having to do with bacchanals of some sort, or great love-battles, with their attendant rancors. For details Ms. Ashley remains the most vivid source.

During some of this time I was in Montana myself, over in the unfashionable eastern part, working on a virtuous movie about the evils of strip mining. This involved hanging out in places like Lame Deer and Colstrip; the stories that drifted over from Livingston soon convinced me that there were two Montanas, and I was definitely in the wrong one. I remember trying to make conversation with a young strip miner who lived in a trailer near the big pit outside Gillette, Wyoming; he insisted on keeping both his expensive hunting rifles on his lap as we talked. When I asked him if he had a girlfriend he said, “I got one but she’s just puke with lipstick,” a resonant utterance delivered about the time Tom McGuane and Elizabeth Ashley began to chat about Turgenev.

From the perspective of Colstrip or Gillette, Livingston sounded practically Periclean. I thought of going there but a well-placed informant discouraged me, mainly on account of the duck. After all, I didn’t even own a duck press, and had shown little aptitude even for shooting ducks, much less pressing them. It was thought that nobody would know what to say to me. Chastened, I drifted back to Texas, and the simplicity of the pinto bean.

I’m funning, of course. Livingston’s not quite that haute. But the question we might ask is what effect, if any, Tom McGuane’s high-plains-and-Florida-Keys flamboyance had on his writing. Flamboyance is certainly the last thing most writers need ever give a thought to. Flamboyant is what they’re not. Byron, Oscar Wilde, Hemingway might have suffered occasionally from an excess of life style, but very few writers ever work up to anything that could fairly be called a life style.

Tom McGuane had one. He was flamboyant, and probably did dance over Jim Harrison’s line, and it probably did adversely affect his work, as he himself, in rueful asides, here and there, has been the first to suggest. Here’s one such remark, from his essay collection An Outside Chance—McGuane is on his way to British Columbia, to visit the much-admired fishing writer Roderick Haig-Brown:

Sportsman, magistrate, English prose stylist of weight, Haig-Brown seems artfully contrived to make me feel in need of a hair-cut and refurbished credentials. I wanted to withdraw my novels from publication and extirpate all the bad words, reduce the number of compliant ladies by as much as 96 percent.

That last proposition, the one about compliant ladies, takes some thinking about. Tom McGuane may indeed have had a compliant lady or ladies in his life, but you sure don’t find them in his fiction, of which there are now ten volumes: nine novels and a book of short stories. One is set in Michigan, two and a fraction in Key West, and the rest mainly in Montana. When there’s sex in these books it’s mainly a function of hunger, not affection. His ladies are miserable, bitter, disappointed, sharp-tongued, furious, and, in some cases, murderous, fed up to the gills with the treacheries and insufficiencies of men. Tom McGuane, who loves horses and who likes to fish, has produced possibly the bleakest, most corrosive view of the relations between the sexes in our recent literature. If I had to pick one comment from hundreds to illustrate what McGuane’s women feel about his men I don’t think I could come up with anything more succinct than Mrs. Jarrell’s remark in Nothing but Blue Skies—Mrs. Jarrell is the wife of a hired man who has just been fired:

Eat shit,” said Mrs. Jarrell. “I hope you have a stroke.”

In only ten pages of McGuane’s new novel The Cadence of Grass, perhaps the most eloquent of his now numerous fictions about desperation and near desperation in the West, the following signs of marital hostility appear:

Natalie was less proud of the fact that she was so unwilling to join Stuart at the things he loved. It was just that she found him so very, very tiresome.

And:

Her musing tone successfully concealed her loathing….

And:

She caught the shortness of his reply and fell silent, looking gloomily out upon the natural world. What use was it?

And:

Evelyn wondered how she had befouled herself with so unsuitable a marriage….

The solution to these disharmonies, the result, as McGuane puts it, of “otherwise admirable but nonmeshing complexities of character,” is usually the departure of the woman. Wives who can’t be bothered to depart—Emily in Something to Be Desired and Marianne in the long story “To Skin a Cat”—clear the decks by murdering their husbands. If we start with The Bushwhacked Piano (McGuane’s second novel) at the point where Ann leaves Payne, and proceed to Panama, where Catherine finally leaves Chet, narratives of wifely departure come thick and come fast. Claire and Patrick separate at the end of Nobody’s Angel, though not before Claire’s husband, Tio, has asphyxiated himself in his helicopter. In Something to Be Desired Suzanne leaves Lucien and Emily shoots her husband; then Astrid leaves Joe in Keep the Change, Marianne stabs Bobby in “To Skin a Cat,” Gracie leaves Frank in Nothing but Blue Skies, Natalie divorces Stuart in The Cadence of Grass, and her sister Evelyn, same book, lives in fear of Paul, until, fortunately for her, he’s dispatched by some drug dealers.

Opinions of course may differ, but it seems to me that these departing women usually have right on their side. With the exception of a couple of guys from the early books (Payne and Chet particularly) none of McGuane’s men is particularly nice; they deserve to be abandoned, divorced, or murdered. The accumulation of gloom and malice in these novels will send some readers, as it sent me, racing for the Tolstoy diaries. The Tolstoys may have fought tooth and nail for forty-eight years, but at least they had some fun, whereas fun in Tom McGuane—or perhaps it would be better to call it peace—happens in a fishing camp, along a trout stream, on a boat in the Keys, on a hunt, on a horseback ride. It’s not to be found in the master bedroom. In a way McGuane’s late fiction is as domestic as Jane Austen’s—hers is about the difficulty of getting married, his about the impossibility of either staying married or getting cleanly separated.

In 1982 Tom McGuane set his fifth novel, Nobody’s Angel, in the invented town of Deadrock, Montana; four other novels—Something to Be Desired, Keep the Change, Nothing but Blue Skies, and now The Cadence of Grass—are set there. Read collectively, the five books present an impressive if depressing portrait of a community that’s neither fully urbanized nor purely rural. Most of the characters still have a stake in a family ranch somewhere, yet many of them live in town, they know who Cézanne was, they travel. Montana remains closer to the frontier experience than any state except Alaska; the urge to reach for the Winchester when there’s serious conflict still comes naturally to some. The grim marital feuding of the five Deadrock novels is not at all unconvincing; it’s just that there’s only so much of that kind of conviction that the normal reader can handle. McGuane’s three nonfiction books, An Outside Chance, his fishing book, The Long Silence, and his horse book, Some Horses, are, by comparison, repositories of calm:

There’s a yearling buck dead by the first spring, nearly devoured by coyotes who have seized intestines and backed several yards from the carcass. This is merely a boon to the coyotes, who have come by this meal as honestly as did the Pennsylvania wolves who devoured the bodies of Braddock’s soldiers after the battle of Monongahela. The face of creation takes in everything with a level stare. When I was younger these manifestations of life’s fury were comfortably free of premonition. Now they bear a gravity that dignifies the one-day lives of insects, the terrible slaughterhouse journey of livestock, and, of course, ourselves and our double handful of borrowed minerals. The old man I see staring from his porch rocker when I go to town is staring into a tremendous distance. As surely as homeowners pride themselves on property that fronts the beach, the lake, or the golf course, we all enjoy abyss frontage; and some, like the fellow in his rocker, seem absorbed by the view.

Tom McGuane and Jim Harrison both hail from Michigan. Both are sportsmen. They bird hunt, they fly-fish, and McGuane at least goes regularly to the Florida Keys for more and different fishing. To judge from their writing, McGuane and Harrison enjoy these activities as much, and as legitimately, as Ernest Hemingway did, but Hemingway was enjoying them before either of the younger men was born. When they were born it was beneath the sign of the Big Two-Hearted River, whose author produced some of the best English prose of the twentieth century. This creates an especially acute difficulty for writers who come from Hemingway country and do so many of the things he did. They work, like it or not, in an echo chamber; evading that great, never-silenced shade cannot be easy. One way to read McGuane’s second novel, The Bushwhacked Piano, is as a desperate end run around Hemingway, in the course of which the author wanders as far afield as proctology. The detailed hemorrhoid operation near the end of the book probably does edge into territory Hemingway would not have cared to compete for; but the novel also contains a bull fight and a visit to Key West, both mainline Hemingway sites.

Probably it’s good that Tom McGuane is now so passionate about horses and Jim Harrison about food, subjects less likely to produce unwelcome echoes. At the end of “Brokeback Mountain,” Annie Proulx’s great Wyoming story, the bereaved cowboy Ennis del Mar, having lost the love of his life, has this reflection:

There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it.

So it is with the ever-larger looming fact of Ernest Hemingway, not merely in the careers of Tom McGuane and Jim Harrison but in the careers of many other writers, or of several generations and different nationalities. Evelyn Waugh himself acknowledged it, in his Paris Review interview, and Anthony Powell, in his Journals, seconds the opinion: the man’s just there, like a mountain, or as a grief. You can’t fix it so you’ve got to stand it.

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