It's getting crowded out there

Monday Book Reviews

March 14, 1994|By Mary U. Corddry

NOTHING BUT BLUE SKIES. By Thomas McGuane. Vintage Contemporaries. 349 pages. $12.

MONTANA is a place of rugged, wide-open spaces and skies and landscapes you don't even try to describe. It is a place where an outfitter leading a group of trailriders into the mountains encounters another group two days out and complains that "it's getting too crowded out here."

Less known than Montana's lonely spaces is the scattered community of writers and poets who have been born or drawn there, and who are doing some of the best writing in America. Foreigners seem to know this better than Americans. When I was in Missoula, Mont., last summer, a French film crew was said to be the third to arrive from overseas in recent months to catch admired writers at their favorite haunts -- the local bars, bookstores or trout streams. Missoula has more of all three per capita than any other town in America.

"Nothing But Blue Skies," by Montana author Thomas McGuane first appeared in hardcover in 1992 and now is out in paperback. It got rave reviews, including one in The Sun, which nevertheless warned readers not to think of Mr. McGuane as another Ernest Hemingway.

In follow-the-leader fashion, critics praised "Blue Skies" with such phrases as "high-spirited and fiercely lyrical" and "dazzlingly acute." His dialogue was said to be real and "precise," although I am relieved that if people actually use some of that language habitually, they don't use it around me.

His characters, I can only assume, are also real, although even in Montana, where I love to be, I wouldn't want to be in their company for very long, not as long, in fact, as it takes to read a 349-page novel.

Tom McGuane is a very attractive, macho guy. He owns a 3,000-acre ranch, rides, hunts and fishes for trout in the Boulder River outside his door. He has conquered a drinking problem. He is married to Laurie Buffet (sister of the singer, Jimmy Buffet) and has four children. He draws around him a wide array of friends, including some of the celebrities he got to know during the '70s, when he was a Hollywood film writer and director ("Ninety-two in the Shade").

"Blue Skies," as did his previous book, "Keep the Change" (1989), which I preferred, follows not a plot line but a general pattern. The central character, Frank Copenhaver, has lost his -- woman. (As a woman I can say, "No wonder.") He is a man who substitutes motion for introspection. He spends a lot of time in his car, an Electra, covers a lot of space, has a lot of casual sex and bizarre misadventures and lets his real estate and livestock ventures fall apart through neglect and a what-does-it-matter-anyway attitude.

In the end he is headed toward a hazy future, but this time with his wife, Gracie, in the car, turning "into a long, twisting road, and if there was a stop sign anywhere, it must have been hidden behind the curves."

To my taste, the deeper theme of Mr. McGuane's novels has been better expressed by a long list of other writers in and about Montana. There are, for instance, James Welch, the Indian writer who produced remarkable insights into the souls of his people in "Fools Crow," "Winter in the Blood" and "Indian Lawyer"; Ivan Doig, who in "Dancing at the Rascal Fair" and "English Creek" made his heritage of Scottish immigrant ranchers and sheepherders as vivid as the reader's own; or Mary Clearman Blew, whose splendid memoir of three generations of Montana women, "All But the Waltz," gives new meaning to the word "survivor." Then, of course, there is Norman Maclean's "A River ,, Runs Through It," an 18-year-old classic introduced to the public last year when it was translated with uncommon sensitivity into a major film.

From the novels of these and a long list of other Western writers, the basic revelation comes from characters who break through barriers of social expectation and become lone travelers. This is an intangible and exciting quality which glimmers in the novels of Thomas McGuane, the most lionized of Montana's writers, until his characters seem to bounce off into space, still seeking, with no clear direction.

"Nothing But Blue Skies" reminded me of a country-western song I heard while sitting in a dentist's chair. Roughly remembered (some readers might know it better), it goes something like this: "I'm not first class, but I'm not white trash . . . Some women don't like a man like me, but then some women do." That's about it.

Mary U. Corddry, former Eastern Shore correspondent of The Sun, lives in Churchville.

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