Thomas McGuane is the greatest writer of American loneliness we have. He’s also perhaps the only writer to use the term dirt chute to describe the last stop on the human digestive trail. His characters are known for their bad decisions; they might be literature’s best example of what ignoring good judgment gets you. So sitting down with him one weekday morning for coffee at his hotel in midtown Manhattan, it seemed to me that our conversation could’ve started anywhere. But it started with McGuane offering that his next book will be a novel—he’s already looking ahead. When asked why he writes, he replies: “That’s my mode of existence: I don’t know how not to do it. You might as well have asked me why I keep breathing.”
This month sees the publication of Crow Fair (Knopf), McGuane’s 16th book, but only the third story collection of his 46-year career (he’s also published three works of nonfiction). The setting, like the majority of his work, is Montana (though three of his early novels take place in Florida). “I’m going to really miss short story writing,” he says. “One of the reasons I’m reluctant to start a novel is it’s such an obsessive activity. You get in there, you don’t know anything else while you’re in there. And that’s quite a sacrifice to make, especially for us old guys where time is kind of short. You don’t want to disappear for a year, you want to be outdoors.”
McGuane is 75. He wrote his first novel, The Sporting Club (1969), in six weeks: “I had this fuel, this desperation at that time. I was out of school, I was applying for jobs, not getting much response to my applications, married, had a child.” It should come as no surprise to anyone who’s read his work, but his brain moves with excessive speed—at one point he quotes John O’Hara and John Cheever back-to-back. He can speak intelligently and convincingly on a wide range of subjects, and he’s also honest. It’s obvious that writing and his family are held above everything else; he talks urgently and vulnerably about both.
Our conversation veers from topic to topic. McGuane calls Florida “that corrupt zone.” On his friendships: “[Jim] Harrison, in particular, will just pull something out of his butt in the middle of a conversation. And [Richard] Brautigan was that way, too. And so was Barry [Hannah]. I guess we all have that in common.” How he views writing: “You can’t plow a field by turning it over in your mind.” To McGuane, good writing necessarily includes a high risk of failure; it’s only the bad books that aren’t “inching toward and around failure.” He even recalls the first thing his uncle Walter said to his mother upon reading The Sporting Club: “Where did Tommy learn all these dirty words?”
In interviews, McGuane has discussed the fear of failure he felt in his 20s, when The Sporting Club was published. Now, he says, his fears have changed: “I’m certainly afraid of anything happening to my wife and children.” McGuane has been living in Montana since the 1960s and has been married to his wife, Laurie, since the ’70s. He has four children and five grandchildren, all of whom live in Montana. “I’m certainly afraid of not being able to write for some reason. I guess I’ve had spells of not necessarily writer’s block, but something like that. I find that pretty terrifying,” he says. “If I get too old to write, or short-term memory loss—that was the one Philip Roth was worried about—if I got to that point, that would be terrible, because everything about my life has been streaming toward writing and having something to say. That would make me feel as though I were in an iron maiden of some kind. You get a straw to breathe through.”
It is tough to imagine McGuane slowing down. He regularly puts out a book every three or so years, and he speaks with boundless energy about craft, getting better, and his forebears (Svevo, Gogol, Walser, and Schulz are favorites for their “buried risibility”). What’s more, his work seems to be getting better and better: Crow Fair, which received starred reviews from PW, Kirkus, Booklist, and Library Journal, is arguably his best book.
Part of what makes McGuane’s work so captivating is its sustained bathos: he frequently (and smoothly) switches gears between the comic and the tragic through the misadventures of his well-meaning yet blundering characters, creating a kind of soldered echo chamber of human pathos. His fiction is both odd and big-hearted. As he put it in his Art of Fiction interview in the Paris Review back in 1985: “I’m trying to find a way to avoid trivializing the serious stuff without undermining the comedy of it.”
Throughout his career, McGuane has stayed true to this high-low balance: his third novel, Ninety-Two in the Shade (1973), was a National Book Award finalist, despite featuring a scene in which the protagonist’s grandfather rubs a sudsy mop on his secretary/lover’s bottom while she hits a high note to break a wineglass. The Cadence of Grass (2002) has a screwball set piece involving a kidney transplant, but, in one of the best endings to any novel in recent years, it suddenly switches from close third to first person in the last five pages, revealing one character’s entire life as it flashes before his eyes upon confronting death. One of Crow Fair’s best stories, “Weight Watchers,” is a character masterpiece of loneliness and solitude, though its premise is a man thrown out of his house by his wife for being too fat.
And about that loneliness: “I think it’s the underlying condition of being human,” McGuane says. “And all of our efforts, which are infinitely diverse, are involved in this process to escape that state. One of the things I’ve learned through life is that you never entirely cure that. I’ve been married for 40 years, but what’ll happen quite regularly is you’ll notice things about your spouse that make you understand you really don’t know that person entirely.”
Loneliness takes this form in McGuane’s work: his characters seem to consistently make decisions that lead to a state of isolation, wittingly or unwittingly. His last novel, Driving on the Rim (2010), follows a Montana physician’s downward spiral as the locals shun him for his possible medical malpractice, which results in a woman’s death. Jessica, the protagonist of “Stars” from Crow Fair, feels more for a trapped wolf she stumbles across in the woods than she does for humans. The slow dissolution of couple Juanita and Pat’s marriage is the subject of “Shaman,” also in Crow Fair, which might best be summed up by this exchange on their brief Cancun trip: “‘Oh God, we’re not really going back to Montana,’ she said on the last day. Pat said, ‘I hate to think how much we’ll miss these warm sea breezes,’ but that wasn’t what she meant at all, at all, at all.”
So, is there an answer to the loneliness? “Not finally,” McGuane says. “There’s a kind of negotiating truth with it. That’s the duty of literature.” In addition to eliminating loneliness, McGuane says, literature should also eliminate cruelty, an idea first posited by Chekhov. “I think that’s what we all try to do with our lives, close those gaps between objectivity and subjectivity.”
McGuane’s mind is always on, attuned to the unexpected and the strange. He never forgets. When asked how he knows when a story is going in the right direction, this is his answer: “Organically. And you never know. One of my early favorite books was Saul Bellow’s Augie March. He was living in Paris and kind of not comfortable with where his creative life was going, and he saw a peculiar kind of rainbow-like light reflected from a mud puddle, and it propelled him into writing Augie March. I mean, go figure. How could that happen? I think anybody alert to the inspiration to write has to be kind of sensitized to the unexpected. One, for example, that I never acted on, that’s been bothering me for about 30 or 40 years: I was out really late at night in Livingston, Mont. The place was deserted. This battered old cowboy, he was probably in his 80s, was kind of making his way down the street by himself, going under these lights from the fronts of buildings. He looked to me like such a pathetic sight. And then all of a sudden I heard this little voice saying, ‘Hey, Shorty!’ And this little boy came running out from the side street, and ran up to him, obviously in some sort of worshipful relationship to this figure, and they were so glad to see each other. And then they kind of evaporated. And I always thought, ‘That must go someplace.’ But it never did. I remember feeling, ‘God, there’s a sort of sparkling moment that has legs of some kind.’ But I never found them.”
Gabe Habash is the deputy reviews editor of Publishers Weekly.