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Thomas (Francis) McGuane III Biography

Thomas McGuane comments:

Nationality: American. Born: Wyandotte, Michigan, 1939. Education: The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; Olivet College, Michigan; Michigan State University, East Lansing, 1958-62, B.A. 1962; Yale University School of Drama, New Haven, Connecticut, 1962-65, M.F.A. 1965; Stanford University, California (Stegner fellow), 1966-67. Career: Since 1968 freelance writer and film director. Awards: Rosenthal Foundation award, 1972; Montana Governor's award, 1988; Northwest Bookseller's Award, 1992; Golden Plate Award, American Academic Achievement, 1993. Honorary Ph.D., Montana State University, 1993. Agent: Amanda Urban, International Creative Management, 40 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10019.



The Sporting Club. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1968; London, Deutsch, 1969.

The Bushwhacked Piano. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1971; London, Minerva, 1989.

Ninety-Two in the Shade. New York, Farrar Straus, 1973; London, Collins, 1974.

Panama. New York, Farrar Straus, 1978.

Nobody's Angel. New York, Random House, 1982.

Something to Be Desired. New York, Random House, 1984; London, Secker and Warburg, 1985.

Keep the Change. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1989; London, Secker and Warburg, 1990.

Nothing But Blue Skies. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, and London, Secker and Warburg, 1992.

Short Stories

To Skin a Cat. New York, Dutton, 1986; London, Secker and Warburg, 1987.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Another Horse," in Atlantic (Boston), October 1974.

"The El Western," in Writers of the Purple Sage, edited by Russell Martin and Marc Barasch. New York, Viking, 1984.


The Missouri Breaks (screenplay). New York, Ballantine, 1976.


The Bushwhacked Piano, 1970; Rancho Deluxe, 1973; The Missouri Breaks, 1975; Ninety-Two in the Shade, 1975; Tom Horn, with Bud Shrake, 1980.


An Outside Chance: Essays on Sport. New York, Farrar Straus, 1980; revised edition, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1990.

Live Water. Stone Harbor, New Jersey, Meadow Run Press, 1996.

Some Horses. New York, Lyons Press, 1999.

The Longest Silence: A Life in Fishing. New York, Knopf, 1999.


Manuscript Collections:

University of Rochester, New York; Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah; Michigan State University, East Lansing.

Critical Study:

The New American Novel of Manners: The Fiction of Richard Yates, Dan Wakefield, and Thomas McGuane by Jerome Klinkowitz, Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1986; Thomas McGuane by Dexter Westrum, New York, Twayne.

Theatrical Activities:

Director: FilmNinety-Two in the Shade, 1975.

I write fiction in the hope of astounding myself. I am seldom successful, and have long ago lost interest in the rest of my audience.

* * *

Thomas McGuane writes a new style novel of manners, crafted for an age in which the signs of behavior have become a self-conscious medium with the name of semiotics. We cannot know characters until we understand the codes by which they function—Henry James established that truth in his own mastery of the novel of manners. But in McGuane's world manners have become a topic themselves, and as his characters posture in a display of cultural signs the novelist is challenged to sort out the active from the reflexive. It is the drama between these two poles which creates the energy of McGuane's fiction.

His first novel, The Sporting Chance, adapts the Hemingway code of sportsmanship and grace under pressure to contemporary times. There has been an apparent generational decline, as the descendants of a 100-year-old sporting club destroy themselves and the camp in an atavistic fury. Two main characters, Stanton and Quinn, emerge as the contrary tendencies within the club's tribal framework: the spokesman for order, and the shamanistic "fiend" who by exaggerating all tendencies to disorder provides the tension which holds the group intact even as it threatens to fly apart. As in all of McGuane's novels, there is "a readiness for calamity … in the air," and expressing this sense allows the author scope for his best writing. Stanton "thrusts" rather than "steps," and transforms the club's civil practice of sport into a primeval combat. When Quinn himself reverts to Stanton's beliefs, the cycle is nearly complete, and is rounded off when a time capsule reveals that the founders' genteel standards have been a sham all this time.

From the northern Michigan woods McGuane moves the action of his next three novels to the Florida Keys, "America's land's end" as he calls it, and within this context of intermingled exoticness and shabbiness he conducts his most thorough survey of manners. In The Bushwhacked Piano it is the region to which young Nicholas Payne flees with his girlfriend (who has decided to adopt "floozihood" with the ambition other girls her age would look forward to a prestigious woman's college). Payne has rejected the bland "Waring blender" world of his parents' suburbia, choosing instead to embrace the raw aspects of his country and its people with a sensuosity that infuses his prose. A motorcycle ride through a valley and out onto a beach is described with a heady sense of smell and sound; even an inventory of his girlfriend's room becomes a riot of unconnected materiality celebrated for its sense of being. "I am at large" is Payne's testimony to his role in life, and in his vision the extremes of America are created.

Ninety-Two in the Shade finds another dropout, Thomas Skelton, leaving college for a life of guide-fishing in the Keys. Here he finds two alternative models of conduct, and even though he knows one is a sure road to destruction, he embraces it with a sense of destiny. "He had long since learned that the general view was tragic, but he had simultaneously learned that the trick was to become interested in something else. Look askance and it all shines on," which is Skelton's method for feasting on the manners of Key West while his own life rushes toward its destructive end. Panama transforms the typical McGuane hero into a rock star whose career and sanity are on the skids. Because of his inability to control his own poetic vision, he has destroyed everything of value around him. As a performer he is "paid to sum up civilization or to act it out in a glimmer," and as his rock theatrics become more bizarre the culture rushes ahead of him. One of contemporary fiction's best insights into drug use, Panama shows its central character walking a tightrope between life and death. In lucid moments between the effect of drugs one can appreciate "memory," which is "the only thing which keeps us from being murderers." Yet destruction predominates. "Something about our republic makes it go armed," the narrator confesses. "I myself am happier having a piece within reach, knowing that if some goblin humps into the path, it's away with him." In this subtle rhythm of cultural malevolence lies the novel's fascination.

Key West proved to be a burnout for McGuane himself as well as for his characters, and his recent novels have been set in the harsher country of Montana, where nature conspires to enforce an isolated sense of stability and self-reliance on the characters McGuane now considers. Nobody's Angel finds an Army officer returning to his family's ranch, where he serves as the reflector of a narrative action whose language expresses his feelings of change and loss—from an empty water sluice which cooled milkcans before the supermarket days to a friend's Cadillac which is parked nose-up to the straw outside the barn. A devotee of lost causes, McGuane's protagonist invites danger and failure by falling in love with a married woman, largely because she is as unobtainable as the fantasy girlfriend he used to keep life at bay as a teenager. But as his barren West is peopled, he must flee it for a more pure legend of himself, living alone in Seville, Spain, from whence his old friends can concoct their own off-base fantasies of what his life is like.

With Something to Be Desired McGuane shows the ability to synthesize his work, using a Montana setting for the enactment of a carnival equal to any of the excesses of his previous novels. His protagonists have always gravitated toward living at the edge, and in this case Lucien Taylor withdraws from a conventional career and marriage in order to tempt fate by romancing the much wilder woman timidity kept him from years before. Yet even on the edge in Montana, where he begins an outlandish tourist resort attracting all types of crazies, he still finds that life is shrouded in a protective textuality. People relate via lines of dialogue instead of with meaningful statements, and roles are played more often than lives are lived. Yet Lucien is also a painter, and his artistic eye relates to nature better than to the thin, superficial social types around him, which gives him a higher goal.

Returning to ranch life from a life of painting motivates the plot of Keep the Change as well. Here protagonist Joe Starling faces several issues: the decline of his father's once grand ambitions of ranching and the consequent economic and moral decay attendant upon such lost hopes, and Joe's own attempt to recapture a style of perception from his youth which prompted his career as a painter. The key events for each center on the image of an abandoned mansion constructed in the last century by a would-be silver-rush baron and now fallen into ruin. Joe remembers how one of the few scraps of ambition and success remaining in the ruins is a picture still hanging on the wall, a painting that captures the purest essence of white. Having pursued a painter's career and now returning to save his ranch and place it in hands that will assure its future, Joe ventures back to the crumbling mansion to find that its painting, his ideal of perfect art, is not a painted canvas at all, but only an empty frame designating a blank expanse of wall. Thus even though Joe has recovered his ranch only to lose it again, it is the act of framing that remains important.

Frank Copenhaver, the protagonist of Nothing But Blue Skies, is a more sociologically representative Montanan. As a successful rancher and real estate developer he finds himself positioned to enjoy the fishing that is such an important element in McGuane's fiction, perhaps the most important in a major American novelist's work since Ernest Hemingway. Like the Hemingway hero, McGuane's has woman trouble, too, and having his wife leave him coincided with financial ruin and personal disarray. McGuane's genius is to play this familiar crisis against the backdrop of American popular culture (some of which is a response to Hemingway himself in equal parts adulation and parody), such as the scene where Frank and his equally distraught friend Phil listen to a radio interview with Dolly Parton where "country" equated with "family" and "You could feel her dimples come over the airways.… As though each man were assigned one of Dolly's big breasts, the room grew calm. They gazed off in comfortable friendship, the ghastly weeping now subsided into tolerable ungainliness. They sucked down the bourbon."

Since 1981 McGuane has published short fiction in a wide range of magazines. Collected in To Skin a Cat, these stories employ the same styles of quirky dialogue, behavior exquisitely mannered yet idiosyncratic to the modern American West, and metaphorical expression that have characterized his novels. Like his friend Richard Brautigan, McGuane delights at stretching the distance between tenor and vehicle as he draws similes from the most surprising places, as when a story's protagonist suffers "a spell of dullness like the two weeks that make the difference between a bad and a good haircut." Such devices remind McGuane's readers that one of his primary interests remains in language, and how the subtle turn of it can reawaken attention to matters that might otherwise remain deadeningly familiar.

McGuane's progress has been to celebrate the materiality of his fiction—the lilting song of his characters' language, especially the minor ones; the mad fandango of their behavior, especially when it counterpoints the narrator's more inquisitive action; and the special atmospheres of the regions about which he writes. Like his protagonists, these regions are always on the edge: in the northernmost woods of Michigan, at the extreme tip of Florida, and at America's virtual disappearance into perspective in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Finding the right words for each makes his fiction a success of language and image, providing readers with an aural picture of life in these places and times.

Jerome Klinkowitz

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