THOMAS McGUANE is often called a “Western writer,” although it’s a West of a particularly interior sort. His fiction doesn’t have the slickness of Larry McMurtry’s, the sometimes overwhelming emotion of Ivan Doig’s, the plottedness of Cormac McCarthy’s or the occasionally forced (and, many Westerners say, false) vernacular of Annie Proulx.
The stories in McGuane’s 14th book, “Gallatin Canyon,” are a perfect case in point. There’s some landscape, but not too much, some “concretta,” as McGuane himself once called it, but the work here is surprisingly uncluttered. There’s very little outside world beyond the trailers, broken-down houses and other enclosed spaces (sailboats, dining rooms, cars) in which McGuane’s characters play their parts.
This tight focus can have an unsettling effect on a reader, which is what every author worth his or her salt wants. Get them in, lock the door, teach them the new language of your universe and tell them what you know. A reader should emerge from a writer’s grasp shaking like a golden retriever on the shore of a cold lake, and some of the drops should stick.
McGuane is a master of this art. To see the world through the eyes of his characters -- say, “the old feller” in “Cowboy” (“It don’t do you no never mind to tell nobody nothin”) or the slightly insipid main character in the title story (who says of his high-powered girlfriend, “I adored her when she was a noun and was alarmed when she was a verb, which was usually the case”) -- is to feel unsettled, precarious and yet certain, in an almost Buddhist sense, of one thing: change.
McGuane’s method is to circle in for the kill -- which, in these stories, has to do with the meaning of small things, events and gestures. His slow, certain evocation of a father’s blind love for his son in “Zombie” or of a disaffected young man’s toying with his physical education teacher’s much older wife in “Ice” is as mesmerizing and sinuous as a rattlesnake coiling or the sound a rope makes snapping in the air. It turns each story into a kind of pressure cooker.
And when you look up, for better or worse -- no matter how much you cleave to, even love, the day-to-day -- you realize that life can be like that, and not just for crazy people. Things you’ve worked on for decades can go up in smoke in a minute; people can take away what you thought you could bank on forever; seeing the light hit the grass a certain way in the middle of one’s life can spark a runaway fire that leaves a whole lot of wreckage and an equal amount of fertile ground.
What keeps these stories from becoming depressing and unbearably painful is the sublime indifference of life -- which we can learn from nature if, like McGuane, we are fortunate enough to live close to it. In “Vicious Circle,” a woman named Olivia marries, leaving an admirer, John Briggs, filled with regret. Still, his very resignation imbues him with grace. The young narrator of “Cowboy,” wounded by his past, will come to trust the old feller enough to tell him about it and will receive a kind of blessing that helps him go on.
There’s so much here that is not overtly explained, so much mystery in the characters and their relationships. Yet it’s not just cowboy speak, you come to realize. It’s the enormous importance of timing in life: timing and intention. Everyone’s full of holes; everyone has desires that may never be fulfilled. People have secrets. How and when we talk about them, or don’t, can change the course of our lives and affect our integrity in the long run. “The clouds on the horizon made a band of light on the deep green Atlantic,” observes the young man in “Miracle Boy” as he sits with his mother, who is absorbing the recent death of her own beloved mother, “and the breakers that lifted and fell with such gravity might have drowned our conversation, if there had been any. We must not have felt the need.”
You can’t force this kind of writing; there’s too much riding on it. You can’t pull out your protractor and plot the points in the arc of the story. You can’t jot down meaningful dialogue to sprinkle like fertilizer on a dying lawn. There’s not much you can do, really, but live and watch and write.