Captain Berserko Writes a Better Ending
Credit: Kurt Markus
In 1973, when McGuane was 33, his third novel, Ninety-two in the Shade, made him famous. The story of warring fishing guides, with its pointillistic evocation of the Florida Keys, its nautical shop talk, and its romance with how things are done – how boats are built, how engines are torn down, how fish are caught – had critics comparing McGuane to Camus, Hemingway, and Céline. And like Hunter Thompson – another connoisseur of self-induced derangement hitting his stride at the time – McGuane had gotten the feeling of drugs just right, opening his novel with a precise rendering of a psychedelic excursion down Florida's A1A highway. The book might well have been called Senselessness and Sensibility.

In his fiction, McGuane wrote about romantic young men at odds with both romance and authority, but adept at fishing, hunting, and punking their opponents. Just as his characters could tear down an engine and build it back, so could McGuane disassemble and recombine the very conventions of the novel: "I would describe the contents of Don's room," he wrote in his next book, Panama, "but none of it is of any interest." For decades, I devoured not only his fiction and essays, but also kept tabs on his outsize persona: drugs, drunkenness, movie deals and ordeals, fistfights, a short-lived marriage to Margot Kidder. For me and many other readers, McGuane became an avatar much as Jack Kerouac had been for road-hungry seekers in the '50s.

And now McGuane, nearly 71 years old, has just been inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In the way of accomplished people who just keep at it, this writer who'd made an art form of buffoonery, who'd given subversion a literary gloss like the paint job on a new Camaro and made facetiousness a way of dancing on the edge of the beautiful – this writer was becoming, in spite of everything, an august personage.

Not that his family lets his newfound eminence deter them from treating McGuane with a certain derisory affection. Tonight, Laurie teases her husband for losing yet another cell phone, this one to the Yellowstone River. He had spent the day fishing there with his 12-year-old grandson Thomas.

"My son, who is a sardonic fellow, said, 'Well, Dad, at least it works underwater,'" McGuane says. Later he plays the voice mail that his son – Thomas IV, 43 – left him. "Glub glub glub... This is a brown trout calling ... I found your cell phone at the bottom of the Yellowstone ... glub glub glub ..."

"My crazy children," McGuane says, with the sort of bemused approval other parents reserve for good SAT scores. "We're a clan that likes to have fun."

It's easy to see McGuane as the boon companion that his angling buddy Tom Brokaw described sitting around a fire with after a day of bonefishing, a man "at full throttle, taking us through hilarious stories of the old days in Key West, tossing off ribald jokes and observations. It was his usual bravura fishing-buddies performance, and I finally said, 'Tom – if you weren't our friend, we'd have to rent you.'" McGuane, in turn, describes a recent phone message from Brokaw, suggesting that the two do a joint reading: "Hey, Tommy Mac, should we do a book signing in town together or should I just go fuck myself?"

In the midst of all the good-natured goofing, Tess, the black Lab, cuts loose with an overpowering fart.
"Laurie, do they have any apps for dog farts?" McGuane asks his wife, who had been touting the virtues of her iPhone. Then he leaps up from the sofa, where he's been showing off a page from James Joyce's Dubliners on the Kindle he takes with him on fishing expeditions, most recently to Belize. And at an age when many writers are grooming their reputations for posterity, Thomas McGuane proceeds to reenact how he and his brother baited their father one night with a pile of fake dog poop.

"We waited until he went into the bathroom and put it in the hallway," he says. He imitates his father emerging from the bathroom, frowning as he spots the poop, then bending down to peer more closely at it.

"He covered it with a tissue and dropped it in the trash," McGuane says, his voice cracking like an adolescent. "We'd wait for him to leave, fish it out of the trash, and move it where he would find it again. We must have moved it a hundred yards that night!"

We all laugh, but in the ringing silence that follows is an inkling of old battles, a reminder that for all of the bonhomie on display tonight, this is a second act for McGuane, maybe a third. His happy home has been hard won.

"I had a kind of tough early life," he says later. "I had a tough time in school. I had an unsympathetic family in terms of what I was trying to do. I decided that my family situation was simply hopeless. I kinda bailed out, and my brother and sister didn't. I failed at marriage, which I'm very upset with myself over. I just kept beating my head against these things. So I lit out for territory."

He is reminded of something the West Texas horse trainer Buster Welch, whom McGuane calls his oracle, says: "Tom, every really good horse is a freak. Anybody who sets out to do something unique is going to acquire the status of a freak in his own family."