By Ray Sawhill
In his new novel, “Nobody’s Angel” (Random House), Thomas McGuane tries to get beneath the surface of hip nonchalance. His early books — “The Sporting Club,” “The Bushwhacked Piano,” and “Ninety-two in the Shade” — were literary stunts performed with an attitude of stoned obliviousness that gave them a mocking pizzazz. In their best passages, McGuane seemed to have perfected his own kind of aristocratic cool — evasive and laconic and loaded with crafty surprises. “Nobody’s Angel” is full of his usual pop-surreal situations and wacko characters, but it shows a new willingness to try to look them in the face; it represents an attempt to bring direct emotion into his fiction. If the novel doesn’t work, it’s because he doesn’t go far enough. When desperation and terror are demanded he manages to beckon forth only their pallid stand-ins: timidity and skittishness. The book seems abashed: apologetic, even repentant.
McGuane’s hero is Patrick Fitzpatrick, 36. Ex-juvenile delinquent, ex-prep-school student, ex-Army captain in Germany, where he chased Frauleins and raced his high-speed tank, he has suddenly been overcome by melancholy. Time to grow up, he decides: “By your late thirties the ground has begun to grow hard. It grows harder and harder until the day that it admits you.” He returns to his family’s Montana ranch, and what he has so diligently avoided all these years — grief, guilt, remorse, pain — catches up with him.
Patrick tends his grandfather, a dotty cowpoke, and his loony sister, and feels exhausted, depleted, bewildered; he’s afflicted with what McGuane calls “sadness-for-no-reason.” He has the side-stepping, wise-guy reflexes of a McGuane hero built into his system, but it has come to the point where they rather appall him. Self-consciousness has him in a stranglehold. Under the vastness of the Western sky, Patrick indulges his taste for wistful reverie, consoles himself with booze and waits for a new, more congenial value system to descend upon him. At a party he meets Claire, a young Oklahoma woman who’s beautiful, oil-rich and married. The action moves between Patrick’s attempts to keep his family and ranch shipshape and his struggle to find the emotional wherewithal to woo and conquer Claire.
McGuane gives Patrick plenty of reasons to feel bad, but he hasn’t located and released his hero’s latent energy; the awful, lurking rage of true misery is missing. If you’re going to show a burnt-out case reviving his flame, giving him some fuel doesn’t hurt: remember the Bill Murray comedy “Stripes”? But McGuane wears his literary skills like a surgeon’s mask — Patrick seems anesthetized by the fastidious wordplay. So a vexing question hovers over much of the book: why should a honey-haired dream like Claire bother with a morose loser like Patrick? Even his desire for her seems willed. And McGuane’s writing gets wispy and precious when he lets the couple make love; the sex they have is so hushed and reverent it would go unnoticed in a church. Readers with a horror of sappiness know enough to run for the hills when a put-on artist tries in all sincerity to be sincere, especially about love.
- Buy a copy of the book.
- Newcomers to McGuane might start with “The Bushwhacked Piano.”
- Wikipedia on McGuane.
- Robert Birnbaum interviews Thomas McGuane.
©1982 by Newsweek, Inc. Reproduced by permission.