Midlife Misery in Cow Country

NOTHING BUT BLUE SKIES By Thomas McGuane, Houghton Mifflin/ Seymour Lawrence, 349 pp., $21.95.

THOMAS MCGUANE writes like a dream ... in a nightmarish world.

His characters are deep, real, funny, and intelligent. Their dialogue is sharp and sweet, clever (in the best sense) without being contrived. They move in a landscape of rich detail, in town and out, following a trout stream.

They are also desperate and at times out of control. Not out of McGuane's control but their own, on paths of painful discovery often verging on the self-destructive.

It is a path McGuane himself acknowledges having followed, before he stabilized into writing and ranching in Montana, which is no doubt why he reads so well the current manifestation of men's search for balance between action and intellect.

"Nothing But Blue Skies" centers on Frank Copenhaver, a successful, middle-aged entrepreneur in Montana real estate and cattle, who has managed to disprove his disapproving father's prediction that he would never rise above his carousing youth.

It's all falling apart now, starting with his marriage, and he's beginning to feel "that something inside had come completely undone." He chatters on about adjustable mortgages and arbitrage stock selling as he drives his wife of 20 years to the airport for the last time.

Alone now, his business begins to go to pot. His friends and brother are concerned but unable to stop his descent into desperate sex and alcohol-fueled craziness, which accelerate the spiral. "I have underestimated what a delicate thing life really is," he tells a woman friend.

It's not what he wants, and he moves on through the dream looking for solace and answers. He thinks the steadying rock in this turbulent flow is his college-student daughter, whom he has taught to fly-fish expertly. There is a day of heartbreaking father-child intimacy and love at a favorite trout stream in the Gallatin Valley with this sweet, strong, and wryly funny young woman:

" `The only things that undermine my happiness are things I can't lay hands on,' [he tells his daughter].

`Like what?' said Holly.

`Oh, I don't know.'

`Just give me an example.'

`I can't.'

`Is regret one of them?'


`Do you ever get lonely?'

`Of course. That's a bad one. It's not like other things that strengthen you. Loneliness makes you weaker, makes you worse. I'm guessing that enough of it makes you cruel.'

`Two more pale morning duns and we can call it quits,' said Holly [referring to the dry flies used in trout fishing]. She turned and looked at her father in thought. She smiled. He shrugged. She laughed, reached over and squeezed his nose. `Poor little friend,' she said."

Before long, that relationship too is challenged.

The strength of McGuane's characters is the compassion they elicit, even the louts and leeches who are drawn attractively and with sympathy. They are not caricatures.

After Frank swipes and wrecks the truck of a romantic rival he encounters in a bar, he offers to buy the man a new pickup if the charges are dropped. Frank goes home to get his checkbook, then comes outside to find that the man has left:

"Darryl was gone and a note fluttered on the sidewalk gate: `Forget it.' "

As disturbing and depressing as this book mostly is, there is also plenty of the kind of sharp and ironic humor McGuane concocted in earlier novels, short stories, and screenplays. Frank bumps into a buddy on the street and says:

" `I'm one of those guys you read about who's not really in touch with his feelings.'

`Hey, me either! [comes the reply.] I don't want to be in touch with my feelings. What a can of worms!' "

McGuane's own can of worms - at least the fictional one as depicted in "Blue Skies" and some of his earlier works - may be a bit raunchy for some tastes. One wonders if he could put together a story about, say, a marriage that is not dysfunctional, and make it interesting and worthwhile, more than a counterpoint to whatever disaster his antihero finds himself in.

But there's no doubting that he's one of the best fiction writers in the country today, proving at the very least that a guy who spends half his time raising cows 2,000 miles from New York has just as much to say - and can say it just as well - as anybody around.

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