"Crow Fair": Thomas McGuane's new short story collection examines the dark side of the human comedy

The antic storytelling of a modest master finds mischievous fun in the romance and family life of the American West.

Crow Fair By Thomas McGuane Knopf Doubleday 288 pp.

Thomas McGuane lives on a Montana ranch. He is a fly fisherman and has written a book, "The Longest Silence," about same. He is a member of the Hall of Fame of the National Cutting Horse Association in Texas. (For those readers lacking both hat and cattle: Cutting is a rodeo event wherein riders are judged on their prowess at separating one animal from a herd.) He counts among his wives (not concurrent) the actress Margot Kidder and Jimmy Buffett’s sister Laurie. In the 1970s, when McGuane partied with the likes of Buffett, Peter Fonda, and Sam Peckinpah, he was nicknamed Captain Berserko. Today, at 75, he looks like a cross between the World’s Greatest Grandpa and the Marlboro Man.

To McGuane’s admirers, all of this may be about as interesting or as germane to literary exegesis as Hemingway’s fondness for bullfights and rum. But despite McGuane’s induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters, he is not quite a household name. For readers new to his work, his back-story is liable either to raise inappropriate expectations or, worse, to be just plain off-putting. Those hoping that Crow Fair, McGuane’s new short story collection, contains life-on-the-range tales in the spirit of Louis L’Amour or Larry McMurtry will be disappointed. Those concerned that it does are advised that its western setting is the backdrop to funny, antic, and affecting stories of growing up, of romantic and family life, and of finding or failing to find one’s place in the world.

That is not to say that the stories in "Crow Fair" are western only in setting. A number of them treat particularly western subject matter. The protagonist of “Motherlode,” one of the finest and wildest stories in this wild bunch, artificially inseminates ranchers’ cattle for a living, “detecting and synchronizing estrus, handling frozen semen, [and] keeping breeding records.” In “Prairie Girl,” McGuane follows a resourceful prostitute’s progress from a “cow town” brothel called the Butt Hut to a new life and identity. “River Camp” shows a guided fishing trip going horribly, hilariously wrong. Szabo, in “The Good Samaritan,” operates a “property” – he prefers not to call it a ranch – producing “racehorse-quality alfalfa hay for a handful of grateful buyers.” The book’s title story, “Crow Fair,” turns on events at a Native American fair held annually near Billings, Montana.

Yet McGuane is anything but a regional writer, as he possesses a range and psychological insight that could be applied to characters anywhere, in any circumstances. “Hubcaps” and “Weight Watchers” are two stories that make this particularly clear. “Hubcaps” is a deft and subtle rendering of the way a boy is transformed by his parents’ marital dissolution. A scene in which the boy, Owen, hunts for arrowheads with the father of some local children, quietly demonstrates the way life sometimes forces us to seek connection outside the family circle: “My boys don’t care” about arrowheads, the man says, “but maybe you’d like to come along.” This is no Hallmark Channel movie, however, and the story’s ending darkly suggests the inadequacy of such connections, if not of connection itself.

“Weight Watchers,” despite being as funny as “Hubcaps” is troubling, is similarly strong on the strange ways in which we are shaped by family relationships. The narrator must take in his father, a loud, profane, blustering Vietnam veteran – think Walter Sobchak of "The Big Lebowski" – who has been kicked out of his home until he can get his weight under control. In the course of some rather strained father-son interactions, it comes to light that Dad is also an inveterate philanderer; the narrator’s parents, he informs us, have “been claiming to be contemplating divorce for half of my lifetime.... I have found myself stuck in the odd trope of opposing the idea just to please them.” Here the father justifies a lap dance:

“I’m aware that the world has changed in my lifetime and I’m interested in those changes. I went to this occasion as  ... as ... almost as an investigator.”

“You might want to withhold the results of your research from Mom.”

“How dare you raise your voice to me!”

“Jump you and jump you again. Checkers isn’t fun if you don’t pay attention.”

Humor aside,  “Weight Watchers” is not especially sanguine about the effects of being raised by such a man, and it shows us a narrator in depressing denial about those effects. He knows he’ll “never marry” and that he is “unable to imagine letting anyone new stay in [his] house for more than a night – and preferably not a whole night.” The story’s final line is an understated indictment of bad parenting that would do Philip “This Be the Verse” Larkin proud.

Difficult relationships are at the heart of "Crow Fair," but a few of the stories are about utterly, spectacularly failed ones. The aforementioned “River Camp,” which is along with “Motherlode” the book’s most straightforwardly entertaining and high-tension tale, pits two brothers-in-law with a barely suppressed enmity against an unhinged river guide and the perils of nature. One of the men “was thinking of how life and nature were just alike” at just the moment when life and nature are conspiring to swallow him whole. Nature – that is, weather – is also a bonus antagonist in “Canyon Ferry,” wherein a father’s reckless attempt to show off for his son deep-sixes their precarious relationship. “The Casserole” is a very short but memorable story about a cringe-making kiss-off.

McGuane has a marked fondness for misfits, going back to the hero of his sidesplitting, picaresque second novel, "The Bushwhacked Piano," in 1971. His knack for making them both plausible and sympathetic is rivaled only by, say, Charles Portis and Sam Lipsyte. “Motherlode,” an antic and brilliant piece of crime writing, features a villain of the “born loser” variety and a hero who is, unfortunately, not much luckier. The furious, alienated, socially maladroit astronomer of “Stars” is as potent a Madwoman in the Attic figure as anyone has written. And the baroquely self-pitying alcoholic narrator of “Grandma and Me” is a diabolical joy to read.

One of McGuane’s great gifts is the ability to elicit laughter in dark moments or to jolt the reader of an ostensibly comic tale with a knife twist of pathos or tragedy. “On a Dirt Road” seems to be about the misery of meeting terrible new neighbors but is really, like many of these stories, about infidelity. “Shaman” reads at first like a riff on New Age nonsense – “It had taken seven years for the two Rudys to track each other down and become the united Rudy now standing before Juanita and touching a button of her blouse for emphasis” – before taking an unexpectedly troubling turn.

Then again, the reader of "Crow Fair" learns before long that the only thing he can expect is to be surprised – by McGuane’s deadpan wit, his hyperactive imagination, and his deep appreciation for the human comedy. His characters, always locking horns with life, recall the grotesques of another superficially “regional” author, Flannery O’Connor. As with her fiction, McGuane’s serves not merely to make us gape or laugh at man’s essential weirdness but also to recognize a bit of it in ourselves. The wildest frontiers are always, it turns out, disturbingly close at hand.

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