It has not, however, been the most restful of nights for McGuane, who suffers from insomnia. "Last night, when I was trying to fall asleep," he says, "Laurie asked, 'I wonder what the reviews of the book are going to be like?'" He sat bolt upright, his eyes opening as wide as the prairie. "Oh, fuck!" he says. "Where's the Ambien?"
McGuane has always acknowledged the extent to which bad reviews can wound, even derail, a writer. A dismissive notice in the New York Times Book Review for his 2002 novel The Cadence of Grass led to a moment of satisfying payback when the same publication asked McGuane to review books a few days later.
"I told them, 'Go fuck yourself,'" he says gleefully, between bites of a pork and cheese sandwich. He pauses. "Or maybe not. Maybe I said, 'Eat shit.'"
Driving on the Rim, the novel keeping McGuane awake at night, represents a triumphant deepening of his vision. The young male protagonists of his early fiction often served as mere launch pads for missiles of cantankerous wit. They bantered, they played pranks, they dueled, they ran their lances into the available authorities – but it was the author's voice, the writing itself, that was the real hero.
That is no longer the case. Berl Pickett, the small-town Montana doctor at the center of the new novel, is allowed a larger interior life; he is at once bemused and prayerful in the face of existence's abiding mysteries, not the least of which is his own foolishness.
McGuane attributes the relative plain-spokenness of the novel's prose to 40 years of living in Montana.
"That will knock the socks off your vanity," he says. And yet Driving on the Rim may also be McGuane's funniest novel, absurdist in an inimitably American way. Without sufficient notice, the writer has become one of this country's greatest comic novelists, right up there with Mark Twain.