On the Big Two-Hearted River

Thomas McGuane
Thomas McGuane; drawing by David Levine

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…

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