Abandoned husband goes into hilarious decline

September 27, 1992|By William Robertson | William Robertson,Knight-Ridder News Service

NOTHING BUT BLUE SKIES.

Thomas McGuane.

Houghton Mifflin.

349 pages. $21.95. For a long time now, critics and other journalists writing about Thomas McGuane have been eager to compare him to Ernest Hemingway, so let's clear up that business right now.

Magazine and newspaper features dwell on the biographical similarities. Like Hemingway, Mr. McGuane has lived through some wacky times in Key West and out West, in Montana. He once was a heavy drinker, and he has a passion for hunting and fishing.

These are superficial matchups. On the page, where it counts, Mr. McGuane has virtually nothing in common with Hemingway. He has a sometimes manic sense of humor; his characters are ironically introspective; he uses a big vocabulary.

All of these qualities are richly displayed in "Nothing But Blue Skies," and anyone who insists on making a Hemingway-McGuane connection after reading this wise and funny book knows nothing of either writer.

Mr. McGuane's male protagonist is Frank Copenhaver, a businessman in Deadrock, Mont. His story is simple: When his wife, Gracie, from Louisiana's Cajun country, walks out on him, Frank goes into a free fall of drinking, womanizing and inattention to business that almost ruins him.

For plot, that's it. The book's strength is in its details, in a witty, stylish and literary prose that is never self-conscious. Mr. McGuane seems finally to have tamed his excesses and become more interested in telling us about his characters than about himself.

His central character is a businessman; in the past, his heroes have been artistic types, misunderstood by the world and themselves. They haven't necessarily ended up with any more self-recognition than that with which they began.

Mr. McGuane provides enough details of Frank's business activities to make him convincing. One of his reasons for being is making a deal. But he is not a know-nothing, one-dimensional Babbitt sort of fellow. He's smart and, until Gracie leaves, a step ahead of just about anyone. To Frank, business is an intuitive art, and unless he's distracted, he's very good at it.

But Frank has more than his share of distractions when Gracie takes off. Her best friend, Lucy Dyer, is after Frank. So is June Cooper, who owns the local Buick dealership. Then there are more casual sexual encounters. These women are unlike the female characters in Mr. McGuane's earlier work. They are, by and large, strong-willed and able to stand up to men.

As interesting as these women and other subsidiary characters are, however, "Nothing But Blue Skies" is Frank Copenhaver's story.

Frank fails to understand why Gracie has left, but he puts up a devil-may-care front. He holds a drunken wake and parade that has all of Deadrock wagging its tongue. He reverts to his wild past, drinking too much, fighting and, in one instance, taking Lucy Dyer away from her boyfriend in a bar and driving off into the mountains in the boyfriend's truck.

Mr. McGuane moves easily back and forth between Frank's growing understanding of himself and a series of hilarious set pieces. One takes place in the ring of a championship pig show. When a competitor's pig nuzzles him, Frank smacks the animal. It bolts, and the show is thrown into chaos as Frank is carried around the arena on the back of the bucking hog.

The pigs provide an apt metaphor for Frank's situation. But unlike them, he learns from experience and finally comes to terms with Gracie. He is willing to concede his own selfishness toward women in general, but, more important, to the one woman he loves.

The harsh openness and curious solace of the West also figure prominently in the novel. Few writers are better at describing country than Mr. McGuane. His scenes of fishing are little revelations, especially when Frank, to whom fishing is almost a religion, takes his college-student daughter, Holly, to a trout stream.

Though Mr. McGuane retains a kind of exuberant boyishness -- and let's hope he never loses it -- "Nothing But Blue Skies" is a watershed book. His writing has matured. He seems at last to know how to use his energy.

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