McGuane's 'Grass': culture of a country

May 12, 2002|By Melvin Jules Bukiet | Melvin Jules Bukiet,special to the sun

The Cadence of Grass, by Thomas McGuane. Knopf. 239 pages. $24.

Strange things have happened to the Wild West. Sure, there must have been some idealism involved, but the practical-minded pioneers who wanted 40 acres and a mule or a pan full of gold dust almost immediately entered into the realm of myth. There they remained, in a false heroic mode propagated by books, music, movies, TV shows and Buffalo Bill's early version of performance art. Yet even as pulp novelists were pumping up legends, Mark Twain was deflating them, and while Marshall Dillon strode nobly through the streets of Dodge City, Kid Shelleen puked in the gutter.

Simultaneously glorifying and deriding all of these visions through a dozen books and Rancho Deluxe - one of the funniest movies ever - Thomas McGuane persistently has staked his claim to the million square miles or so in the vicinity of the Rocky Mountains, for him a locus of expectation and regret. Now, a full decade after his last major work, he's once again lit out for the territory in The Cadence of Grass.

The book, though short, is actually two books in one, beginning with a tale of bad people acting badly. Sunny Jim Whitelaw, Montana bottling magnate, has just died and left a perverse proviso in his will that the plant can only be sold if his daughter, Evelyn, stays married to Jim's no-good son-in-law Paul Crusoe. Paul is a sexual and financial conniver who impels most of the book's plot by constantly indulging "the gust of his predatory urges."

One year out of prison on a drunken-driving manslaughter charge, he already is sleeping with his parole officer, Geraldine, whom he tells, "beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes to the bone." There's also Sunny Jim's flaky widow, Alice, and their other daughter, Natalie, and her husband, Whitelaw Bottling's executive washrag, Stuart Cross. When these people aren't stealing kidneys, smuggling marijuana or engaging in financial shenanigans, they "humiliate one another for sport."

In short, they keep you reading.

The second book, set on the Whitelaw ranch managed by "tall, tan, hard-eyed" Bill Champion, is a paean to country culture. It's filled with descriptions like: "a little sickle-hocked ... good withers, short pasterns, kind of coon-footed, low-croup ... Cross a horse like that and she drives you into the ground like a picketpin."

The details are undoubtedly true, as the vernacular is luscious - especially as honed by a master stylist - yet this section is inevitably more meditative than narrative. One too many paddocks or pommels turn into a horsy blur on the range.

Only at the end do the novel's dual strands of social commentary and pastoral elegy converge, helped along by idiosyncratic characters like a Punjabi business broker, C.R. Majub, and Norwegian cross-dresser, Donald Aadfield. In one vital case, a 50-year-old secret makes perfect sense, but otherwise The Cadence of Grass rushes hastily and unconvincingly to wrap up multiple plots by giving some characters their final comeuppance and others their due rewards.

McGuane's judgments about the despoilation of a pristine universe into a "raw and bankrupt carnival" are ferocious. Still it's the despoilers who give his book life. That's because human nature makes for more satisfying fiction than Mother Nature.

Melvin Jules Bukiet's most recent books are the novel Strange Fire and the anthology Nothing Makes You Free. He teaches at Sarah Lawrence College.

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