Driving on the Rim
Alfred A. Knopf: 310 pp., $26.95
Fiction is "the last frontier," Thomas McGuane writes in a poetic disclaimer to this powerful novel about Berl Pickett, a small town doctor faced with public condemnation, lest there be any doubt that his characters (or their dogs) bear any resemblance to people he has known, living in Montana these last 40 years. This is a tipoff for the reader that McGuane plans to have fun with "Driving on the Rim," to give himself some loose rein, to play out some thorny moral dilemmas within the confines of a simple character, a regular guy. Don't worry, he explains, "Ranchers and farmers are rarely this gloomy, Christians this delusional, or socialites this far from home."
McGuane has long been forming unforgettable people out of the dust and dirt of the country he knows best — characters that just get fuller and richer and less predictable. But unlike his last book, the story collection "Gallatin Canyon," with its tense, unsettling insights into marginalized characters, "Driving on the Rim" is reminiscent of the author's earlier, funnier work, like his second, picaresque novel, "The Bushwhacked Piano," from 1971. And yet, this is in no way a novel that could have been written in an author's 20s or even 30s (or maybe even 40s). The archaeology of Berl Pickett, the complex layering of memories, the behavioral ruts and yes, the full understanding of how difficult it can be to get one's wheels up and out require a bit of living — no shortcuts. This is a novel in which events matter so much less than the spirit in which we conduct ourselves and the lessons we learn.
Back in 2006, McGuane told this reader that he was working on a novel about a "tremendously compassionate" man who was "in and out of disgrace." He had just come in from three hours of writing in his bunkhouse and seemed irrepressibly happy to have spent it in the company of Berl Pickett. His readers will feel the same way. Berl is 100% homemade from the ground up, with a moral compass that wasn't sold to him by a pharmaceutical company — or anyone else. "I had been raised to believe that time delivers our dreams and quietly carries our nightmares away, and that most of what lies ahead is welcoming and serene." That's Berl. Simple and optimistic. His parents traveled across the Great Plains cleaning carpets for a living before settling in Montana. His mother was a Pentecostal Christian, "always telling me how deceitful the devil was, but that only made me think I could handle him." His father "soldiered on at jobs he disliked." Like most good people, Berl gets in trouble easily, hurts people's feelings with his honesty and fails to care enough when the world threatens to take things away from him.
In spite of frequent confirmation that he lacks the smarts, the young Berl believes he is destined to be a doctor, and sure enough, with a little help along the way and the courage of his convictions, he pulls it off. "I am content to have had this background," he says of the people who raised him, including a highly sexed aunt who taught 14-year-old Berl his considerable skills in bed, a ranching couple who sheltered him from the storm of his parents' drinking days and a local doctor who took him hunting and fishing and gave him something else to strive for: "[I]t acquainted me with the fabulous range of hope entertained by humanity."
This hope proves to be the seed of his possible undoing as well as his possible salvation. The reward for becoming a true adult, as anyone will tell you, is the ability to love. McGuane has birthed a man, huge-hearted, hapless, yes, clueless, particularly when it comes to emotional dealings with women. (Really, Berl, an affair with the wife of the hospital administrator! What were you thinking?)
In fact, most of Berl's lessons are learned in relationships. A wild, willful woman named Tessa is, unbeknownst to Berl, heartbroken over him. When he finally learns this, way too late, of course, he sees the pain that was caused by his lack of understanding. When Berl realizes how badly he has been manipulated by Jocelyn, a dashing bush pilot, he grasps the true value of his friendship with a not-so-dashing but loyal friend named Jinx. A young woman, Clarice, a patient of his, is badly beaten by her no-count husband. When Berl arrives to find her dead, he encourages the husband to commit suicide. His fierce desire to protect Clarice and his anger over her death force him to confront his own morality. Was he too involved to really help her? How could he square his admonition to her husband with his Hippocratic oath?
Berl is a good man. So firmly are we set behind his eyes that we can't see him from any other perspective, though not everyone in the book sees him this way. His confidence comes not from hubris but rather from his complete lack of self-awareness. Berl doesn't seem to understand the extent to which Tessa has fallen for him. When her life falls to pieces and she is brought into his clinic with a knife she has put in her own stomach, Berl does his very best to fix her. The hospital administration accuses Berl of foul play — people start to look at him funny; old friends don't want to be seen with him. He becomes the stranger (in the sense Camus intended) in his community, but not, to McGuane's credit, to us, his readers.
McGuane is thoroughly saturated in Berl's voice and Berl is a storyteller. "This wouldn't be a bad time to talk about how I came to be rescued from Christianity in time to become a doctor," is typical of the way he tells his story. Dry as a bone, continually surprised (and delighted) by humanity. This is what makes Berl so memorable and "Driving on the Rim" such a pleasure to read. McGuane has invested his tale with a buoyancy reminiscent of John Irving ("The Hotel New Hampshire" comes to mind) — his way of veering off plot into the magical, even the surreal. "I knew that the spiritual component of my self," thinks Berl, "while small, was inextinguishable."
It's uplifting to think that an author can dive this far into human nature and come out smiling. Heck, if Berl can live a decent, happy life — if Berl can learn how to love and trust another human being — surely any of us can.
Salter Reynolds is a Los Angeles writer.