Get Real : NOTHING BUT BLUE SKIES, <i> By Thomas McGuane (Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence: $21.95; 349 pp.)</i>
Tom McGuane’s work has always been vibrant with the pleasures of ironic language, play and chase, and quick with the kind of brokenhearted humor that mirrors large-scale fracturing inside our society. We can’t stand behind many of our preconceptions any more. The so-called nuclear family, for instance, mom and dad and the kids, the mortgage, the old folks back home, is a kind of vanishing species. And in Montana, where McGuane’s new novel, “Nothing But Blue Skies,” is set, sometimes we can’t even fish the same old streams. They’re just gone.
“The creek was gone . . . ferns were dying on the banks, and here and there were the remains of fish, picked over by birds and racoons. . . . Caterpillars with which the farmer had built up a broad dike to impound the stream were parked nearby. . . . Frank thought it was pretty unlucky to go fishing and find the stream had been stolen, particularly when you needed the stream for more than just fishing.”
Frank Copenhaver is a boyish middle-aged entrepreneur who has drifted from aimlessness to venture capitalism, where he has found ways to meet his challenges with wit and boldness, and enjoy them. “In some ways he loved money; he certainly loved the sedative effects of pursuing it . . . he had been forced to conclude that nothing got him out of bed with the smooth surge of power--as the Chrysler ad used to say--like the pursuit of the almighty dollar.”
Now Frank’s having trouble doing business because his life has come unglued. His emotional beans have spilled. His wife Gracie, a sharp Cajun beauty, daughter of a furniture dealer from Bayou Teche in southern Louisiana, is leaving him (she once said he made her “feel invisible”), and Frank can’t “bring himself to make his calls.”
He’s lost touch with his set of reasons why some things are more important than others. He’s disoriented and suffering a malaise that certain psychology professionals call “Narrative Dysfunction” (the inability to define your own true story, which you ought to be inhabiting). “It was becoming hard for him to not think of work as something completely made up, no matter how remunerative.”
While driving Gracie to the airport, Frank detours past his properties--the medical clinic, the historic but defunct Kid Royale Hotel, the mini-storage units--as if trying to reassure himself of his own existence (worth, actuality).
“Gracie,” Frank says, “I just know you’re going to hit the ground running.”
It’s Frank who’s running. He climbs an apple tree in the night, and peeps at one of Gracie’s friends, a travel agent named Lucy Dyer, as she undresses. “She dug her fingers into her scalp and pushed them up through her hair, loosening and letting it fall in a wonderful declaration of day’s end. Frank sighed in his tree and rested his head against the trunk. This was serene.”
Frank confesses his peeping. Lucy is as unmoored as he is. “ ‘It’s something how lonely life is,’ ” she says.
“Man, thought Frank, she just chirped that out.”
They are soon to bed. His response to her, Lucy says, is “harder than Chinese arithmetic.” Sex, it seems, is fine and actual. The trouble lies in thinking about it afterward.
But nothing is emotionally useful until Frank is driven to an accurate look at what’s happening in his West, which might be called make-believe all around. Our reality, in the American West and everywhere, is being spun into a cloth all too virtual (read Disneylandish, false). Frank finds the same inauthenticity in his own life. Without purposes driven by love (politics), he is pointless.
“I want to make you see ,” Joseph Conrad wrote, in a famous pronouncement about the purposes of his storytelling. And making sense of what we see, we come to understand the story. Tom McGuane works in the same way, as in “A covey of partridges took to the air in an ivory rush, brown terrestrial birds against the blue of outer space.” And, later on: “At the bend, the wild irises looked as if they would topple into the stream. The narrow band of mud at the base of the sedges revealed a well-used muskrat trail, and on this band stood a perfectly motionless blue heron, head back like the hammer of a gun. It flexed its legs slightly, croaked, sprang into wonderfully slow flight, a faint whistle of pinions, then disappeared over the top of the wall of grasses as though drawn down into its mass.”
Such instances of flight constitute a motif which helps us respond--brown birds, blue sky, and then a blue heron and sedges. They are examples of the care with which this story has been organized around its meanings (the world is splendid without us, so why can’t we learn to fly, or figure a way to be just occasionally joyous).
At first Frank is infuriated by Western phoniness. Everybody, it seems, is looking for a life, as in “a picture of a movie star in People magazine who was attending a Crow Indian sun dance ceremony, hanging by thongs through his chest from the lodge-poles of a prodigious tepee.” And it’s not just the show-biz types. Frank typifies cowboys as “drunken, wife-beating, snoose-chewing geeks with big belt buckles and catfish mustaches. They spend all their time reading magazines about themselves. College Professors drive out and tell them they’re a dying breed.” Inhabiting fantasy.
When Frank’s daughter and trout-fishing companion Holly takes up with a right-wing nitwit, Frank is driven to begin thinking politically. “More than anything, he heard the doleful howl of the saws in the shattered forest. He knew how the soul would be rent in hauling off the trees. . . . It was probably time, he thought, for Americans to learn to love pavement with all their hearts.”
Sometimes spoiled and kicking, and as often honest and creative (typically American, we think), Frank is like a child. His graces (love of wife, friends, Holly, fishing, business) have always proceeded from the idea that life was properly play. Now his playpen has been trashed.
Frank may not be able to save much of his beloved fisherman’s world. But, as we watch him think about trying, we come to at least encounter the notion that maybe we ought to do something about saving the pretty world we inhabit.
I’ve been acquainted with McGuane for at least a couple of decades (we live in the same state, even though his ranch is 250 miles away), and all that time he’s been writing about our emotional dislocations like a crown prince of the language. I’ve pleasured in his wit, been jealous of his talent, and loved his storytelling. But I’ve never been so moved to admire his work as in this story that encourages us to realize the world is not only our playpen but also our sacred trust.