Captain Berserko Writes a Better Ending
Credit: Kurt Markus

On a Montana summer night, in his log home on the edge of the West Boulder River, Thomas McGuane is in high spirits, as if the nonalcoholic Beck's he's been sipping all evening has been spiked, inducing a contact buzz of wild times past.

The subject under discussion is "panties." Or, more to the literary point, how McGuane's good friend of nearly 50 years, the poet and novelist Jim Harrison, has a thing about the word, his fiction apparently as stocked with women's underpants as a Victoria's Secret outlet.

"My daughter Annie is absolutely horrified by the word 'panties,'" McGuane says, a wicked grin crinkling a handsome Irish-American face that appears goofy at banter, stern at task. "And she's about to start reading a novel of Jim's. I warned her to watch out – that she's about to encounter a 'proliferation of panties.'"

Across the living room, his wife, Laurie, hoots knowingly. Sunken into a wingback chair, his legs draped over its arms like a teenager's, McGuane laughs too, seemingly delighted by his own phrase-making. At his feet naps Tess, a black Lab retriever, while the family pointer, Daisy, parades around the room like a showgirl.

Surrounding the novelist is an array of "enumerating things," to use McGuane's phrase, including family photographs and Western paintings such as the Montana landscapes of his longtime buddy Russell Chatham. McGuane turns over one of the paintings to reveal an inscription: "Traded from Russell Chatham for $37 phone bill." "You gave him money," McGuane says, "and it was gone within half an hour, with his sending roses to old girlfriends." On a table sit some recent comic novels, along with his publisher's advance copy of McGuane's forthcoming novel, Driving on the Rim, the 10th of a career extending back more than 40 years.

At 70, Tom McGuane is happily at home, though he might be forgiven if he seems astonished at that simple fact. There's been little precedent for domestic ease: His parents drank themselves to death, his sister died of a drug overdose in her 20s, his brother came out of the Marines only to be institutionalized, and McGuane himself flailed away at two marriages before the one with Laurie finally took. The man dubbed "Captain Berserko" by fellow carousers during the '70s would not have seemed a candidate for quiet evenings in a golden-lit living room with a cat curling behind his head, even if that cat is named Sammy "The Bull" Gravano.

McGuane and Laurie live outside McLeod, Montana, in the high plains of Sweet Grass County in the state's southwest corner, on 2,000 acres with 14 horses and 162 cattle. The sign on the driveway gate says slow: children and old dogs. I was more worried about hitting an Old Novelist.

But the writer, who ambles onto the front porch in jeans and a nicely pressed shirt, is still rangy and fit, even if he moves with the slightly aching carriage of a roper who can no longer reach down from his horse to pick up his hat as he rockets into the rodeo ring. When later at supper Laurie, who also goes by the name La, says, "We're getting old, Pa," McGuane responds with a "Hrrrmmmppphhhh."

I ask Pa and La how they met.

"Tom was on the floor of a bar in Key West," says Laurie, the former Mobile Azalea Trail Maid of 1967 and the sister of Jimmy Buffett. She steals a look at McGuane. "Sorry," she says, smiling.

She doesn't finish the story – of how McGuane, flat on his back and listening to Laurie's melodic Alabama drawl, asked her to "please marry me and take me to your stately Southern mansion." When she answered that she didn't have a stately Southern mansion, he said, "That's okay – will you marry me anyway?"

They married in 1977. The kids – two from his previous marriages, one from her own – chose the venue for the wedding reception: an A&W Root Beer stand. Jimmy Buffett remembers that his new brother-in-law described the combined McGuane-Buffett tribe by saying, "Our family tree has become a box of toothpicks." Today, McGuane credits his declining pessimism in large part to the marriage. "With very few exceptions, we have a fantastic time every day," he says. "We can't wait to see each other in the morning; we can't wait to snuggle at night; we can't wait to ride horses."