KEEP THE CHANGE by Thomas McGuane, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 230 pp., $18.95
THOMAS MCGUANE is the pool shark of our prose. His sentences click with imperious precision. Mass'e and carom and draw shots follow each other with 'elan. McGuane puts English on his English so the words swerve with fatal charm.
McGuane's sang-froid can be disconcerting. He shows cool indifference to character and reader alike. He's been labeled existentialist, but something more than the icy angst of the consummate and desperate artist marks his new novel, ``Keep the Change,'' about a ``dime store Hamlet'' named Joe Starling.
Like McGuane, Starling is a Yale-educated cowboy - McGuane majored in drama, Starling in art. Starling's name puns with that of his girlfriend Astrid, a Cuban-exile: Bird or star, black or white, the mixed opposites help structure McGuane's vision. Starling meets Astrid in Florida where her ``latinity became a romantic feature as she went from hippie spitfire to a goddess of the Florida night.'' When Joe goes home to Montana seeking moments of ``levitation'' as well as peace of mind, Astrid follows. Watching this tropical flower discover her soul in a cold mountain stream is among the piquant and not entirely ironic pleasures in store for the reader.
Joe is a jerk, but an innocent, too. ``Maladroit'' is the word favored by the narrator, who sometimes checks the narrative flow to render an opinion about his hero. Joe's father was an alcoholic with a nasty streak and Joe's homecoming brings him face to face with the nullity of his human heritage.
Montana helps make up for this. McGuane knows his prairies, his cows, his horses, his mountains. As Joe levitates, we do too. Such are McGuane's powers of observation and description. When Joe returns briefly to the Yale Club in New York City, the contrast of values is intense and ambivalent.
Ranching is dying out. Joe's dad left it for banking in Minnesota and foreclosed on some of his neighbors. When Joe returns and works on the family ranch, he disturbs the sleepy and deceitful arrangement established among several parties - the bank, Joe's uncle, and the neighbor who oversees the place. The subplot involves characters less envisioned than hallucinated. This psychological landscape reveals the complexity and depth of illusion nourished by the increasingly impossible dream of the American pastoral West.
Embodying the dream is a long-legged, straight-talking girl named Ellen, daughter of the man who oversees the Starling ranch. On a trip home from military school in Kentucky before Yale, Joe falls in love with Ellen. When he comes back 10 years later, she leads him to think the child she's raising with her husband, Joe's childhood nemesis, is Joe's. Ellen is perhaps the most believable and superficially attractive character in the book; Joe's disillusionment is ours when he discovers her deceit.
By the end of this contemporary cowboy Bildungsroman, we, like Joe, embrace, albeit provisionally, Astrid instead of Ellen, and anywhere instead of Montana. Joe is still an artist looking for a subject. He gets out his easel occasionally, but all he gets is frustration.
His quest takes him back to a fieldstone mansion in the middle of a cattle pasture. His daddy took him there when he was 10 and showed him a big painting over the fireplace. It was of white mountains and constitutes the ground of Joe's mental life. On the return visit, however, Joe discovers that the painting was a mirage, a trick of light. Yet such is Joe's maturity now that he inwardly thanks his father for creating this illusion. ``It wasn't an empty frame, it was his father telling him that somewhere in the abyss something shone.''
What singles out this novel is the honesty with which McGuane has tested his version of Huck Finn. The final pages have overwhelming authority: Joe's ``vision'' is no delusion. Eventually, the reader comes to the perhaps reluctant recognition of Joe Starling as a brother on the road to self-knowledge. The novel is like a real friend: It yields its secrets slowly and not without the frustrations of seemingly arbitrary silences and patient watching. If Joe's character is at first as shapeless as his vision of what he wants out of life, it's because McGuane allows readers to get involved in its unfolding as they read.