He's Left No Stone Unturned

  • An autumn snow has glazed the Crazy Mountains and left a confectionary dusting on the hills and gullies of Montana's West Boulder valley. Atop his horse, Thomas McGuane is silent for a moment as he surveys the Turkish carpet of prairie juniper, sage, buckbrush and wheatgrass that blankets his 3,700- acre ranch in Big Sky country. "It's funny," he says at last, "but you never know where lightning will strike. You're sort of a moving target for fortune, and you never know when it will befall you."

    Not that McGuane is complaining. A fit 50, he has weathered the storms of literary celebrity, Hollywood, alcoholism, two failed marriages and at least one critical scalping, only to retain his stature as one of the most original American writers on either side of the Mississippi. This fall his seventh novel, Keep the Change, was published, ending a four-year hiatus from long fiction. The New York Times proclaimed it the "best book he has written to date." Almost as sweet is the news that Keep the Change is already the best- selling book of his career. No wonder that McGuane's Raw Deal Ranch has been rechristened Gladstone.

    Keep the Change chronicles the cross-country escapades of Joe Starling, a blocked painter who endeavors to "put his old life to an end" by stealing his girlfriend's car and setting out from Florida to reclaim the Montana ranch left to him by his father. As the plot progresses to its ironic denouement, Joe courts his teenage sweetheart, rekindles a love affair with the land and comes to terms with some family ghosts -- both dead and alive. Like most McGuane protagonists, Starling is at a gallop between his past and future, an existential cowboy with good intentions and bad habits, determined to take his spiritual malaise by the horns and shake some meaning out of it. He is, in other words, a lot like Thomas McGuane.

    Both a departure and a summing up, Keep the Change is described by McGuane as a "happy superimposition of results on intentions." Loyal readers will find themselves on familiar terrain -- the bone-dry wit, terse dialogue, lyrical descriptions of nature and hovering suggestion of violence are pure McGuane. But the measured tone and relatively upbeat ending of the book are a far cry from the pyrotechnical flash of his earlier works like The Bushwacked Piano or Ninety-Two in the Shade. Not all McGuane fans have stayed for the ride. "There are readers who abandoned me over the feeling that my writing has become relatively lusterless," he observes. "But your literary style is kind of like your face -- you can't do much to change it. I just hope that you can look at a shelf of my books and say, 'This is a 40-year struggle to understand the human race.' "

    For Thomas Francis McGuane III that struggle began at the age of ten when a disagreement with a boyhood chum over the description of a sunset ended in a fistfight. "It was my first literary skirmish," he says. Born and raised in Michigan, McGuane was introduced to the outdoors and a stern Irish work ethic by his father, an auto-parts manufacturer. McGuane early on developed an "adventurous image" of what a writer should be from Horatio Hornblower novels and books about World War II. "I saw myself on the deck of an Amazon steamer or something," he recalls. At Michigan State, McGuane edited a literary journal and shunned the budding hippie drug culture with such conviction that his peers dubbed him the "White Knight."

    After stints at Yale drama school and Stanford, McGuane realized he had reached a "point of no return" in his literary vocation. "I was in my late 20s," he says. "I had prepared myself for no other career. What was I to do? Start selling lighting fixtures and hope to rise in the corporation?" Instead, he wrote The Sporting Club, an apocalyptic satire of an exclusive Michigan hunt club, which was published in 1969 to rave reviews. Two years later came The Bushwacked Piano, a biting social broadside about a scheme to sell towers stocked with insect-eating bats to the gullible public. In 1973 McGuane upped the ante with Ninety-Two in the Shade, a dazzling novel of free- floating angst and male brinkmanship set in the Florida Keys. Ninety-Two was nominated for a National Book Award, and McGuane became, in the words of ^ Saul Bellow, "a kind of language star." Critics compared the 34-year-old author to Faulkner, Hemingway, Chekov and Camus. The big time -- and Tinseltown -- beckoned. McGuane became a celluloid hotshot, penning scripts for Rancho Deluxe and Tom Horn among other movies. In exchange for writing 1976's The Missouri Breaks, which starred Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson, he was given the chance to direct the screen version of Ninety-Two.

    Meanwhile, McGuane had used the proceeds from selling the film rights to The Sporting Club to buy a ranch in Paradise Valley, Montana, where he moved with his wife, nee Betty Crockett (a direct descendant of Davy), and his son Thomas IV. The breathtaking scenery and anything-goes ambiance soon attracted a freewheeling constellation of characters that included fellow writer Richard Brautigan, actor Peter Fonda, painter Russell Chatham and director Sam Peckinpah. Before long, stories started coming out of the valley, ribald tales of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll that have become part of the local lore.

    Chinks appeared in the White Knight's armor. McGuane and Crockett were divorced, and a nine-month marriage to actress Margot Kidder (Superman) came and went. In 1977 McGuane took a third trip to the altar, with Alabama-born Laurie Buffet, who is the sister of his friend country singer Jimmy Buffet. McGuane's reputation bottomed out in 1978 when he received a critical licking for Panama, a caustically humorous novel that limned the dark side of fame. The same year, actress Elizabeth Ashley threw fat on the media fire by sparing few details of her romance with McGuane in her autobiography, which described him as a "psychedelic cowboy" and "aging juvenile delinquent." Meanwhile, the deaths of both his parents and his sister took a heavy toll. "I come from a family that has a lot of alcoholism," McGuane confides. "I became really kind of an unpleasant drinker."

    It was only a matter of time before McGuane looked through the bottom of a shot glass and glimpsed his own mortality. Observes longtime friend and fellow novelist Jim Harrison (Legends of the Fall): "Like a lot of writers, we started out reading Rimbaud and Dostoyevsky, and you think that in order to write you also have to be partly crazy. And later on it occurs to us that we're going to die unless we behave." Realizing that "my streak of self- destructiveness had to end," McGuane quit drinking and poured himself into writing. Two novels -- Nobody's Angel (1982) and Something to Be Desired (1985) -- were followed by To Skin a Cat (1986), a well-received collection of short stories that helped put McGuane back on the literary track.

    McGuane, who has not had a drink in nine years, also credits his healthier frame of mind to the life-affirming influence of his wife Laurie, who is the mother of their daughter Annie, 9. An expert horsewoman in her own right, Laurie helps McGuane deal with his correspondence and critiques his first drafts. If she admits to noticing a change in her husband over the past few years, it is simply that he has become "less cynical."

    Yet his Jekyll-and-Hyde-like transformation from well-mannered writer to party animal and back again has led some to wonder which is the real McGuane. Both and neither, answers McGuane, who is irked by the fact that his wild and crazy days have taken on "a kind of monster reality" in the press. "During that period I was supposed to be living in the street, I also wrote ten movies, a novel and about 25 pieces of journalism," he says with annoyance. "Even in the flamboyant period of the '70s, I would say 85% of my waking time was spent on work. The day-to-day boring reality is that I was going to the typewriter and working."

    Three years ago, the McGuanes moved out of Paradise Valley to their current spread near McLeod (pop. 5). In the cozy living room of his log-cabin house, McGuane throws another chunk of cottonwood on the fire as Laurie whips up a pot of hearty chicken soup in the kitchen. His lean, 6-ft. 3-in. frame draped across a wing chair, McGuane exudes the tempered confidence of hard-won experience. While many of his erstwhile drinking partners have fallen by the wayside, he has managed not only to survive but to thrive in his role of gentleman rancher and Marlboro Man of letters. "I guess I'm kind of like lip cancer," he says with a wry smile. "I just won't go away."

    During dinner, McGuane sips nonalcoholic beer and talks about an upcoming cutting-horse competition in Billings. Cutting, a highly stylized ritual in which a horse and rider "work" a cow in much the same way a defensive guard tries to block a basketball, is a dear topic for the McGuanes. They also happen to be formidably good at it. Laurie is Montana's defending cutting- horse champion, Tom was No. 1 the year before, and the two are the leading contenders for the 1989 trophy. "We take turns," Laurie laughs.

    McGuane is alert to revealing parallels between the art of cutting cattle and the craft of writing novels. "You cannot work cattle by force," he explains. "A cutting horse separates a cow from the herd through a kind of choreographic countermovement. It's very much like fiction: you can't sit down and say, 'Goddammit, I'm going to blast out these sentences and send them to the publisher' -- this kind of John Wayneism of literature. You just can't." He finds the notion of a so-called Rocky Mountain school of literature equally specious. Still, he admits that "there is a residual frontier feeling of open possibilities that seems to be a part of the voice of living here."

    At the same time, McGuane rejects the charge that he has turned his back on reality by retreating to "a kind of Early American theme park." To McGuane, both urban blight and rural isolation are symptoms of a deeper problem. "I do think that there's a kind of national illness, and I think that every American is touched by it," he says. "It's a by-product of this 20-year wave of narcissism and self-help movements and stuff where people have lost the ability to refer to things larger than themselves, and their reward is solitude. It penetrates Montana as thoroughly as it penetrates Manhattan."

    Which perhaps explains his current fascination with the harmony found in the pedestrian rhythms of ordinary life. "The kind of place that really gives me a thrill now is a place like Chicago or Toledo or Buffalo, where you notice people rolling out and going to work in the morning," says McGuane. "After 50 years of living, it occurs to me that the most significant thing that people do is go to work, whether it is to go to work on their novel or the assembly plant or fixing somebody's teeth."

    The advent of a Rocky Mountain frost provides the perfect impetus for McGuane's own literary labors. In fact, McGuane is already itching to start a new novel, which he says will cover a "larger piece of territory, a larger slice of humanity and include some topics I've never written about before, like politics."

    When he's ready to hit the word processor, McGuane heads out to his office, a freestanding shed with a porch overlooking the banks of the Boulder River. By the door is a fishing rod he keeps just in case the trout start to jump. Fishing, McGuane explains, is just another way for him to stay in touch with the "spirit and poetry of the natural world." Maintaining a primal connection to the environment is essential to McGuane, for both his peace of mind and his work. "I feel strongly that writers need to be some place," he says. "The real thing, the real job of artists of any kind is to somehow seize the life you're having in an unrelinquishing grip." McGuane is sure to continue doing exactly that. But, just in case, he keeps his epitaph handy. His eyes gleam with mischief as he repeats it: "No stone unturned -- except this one."