Captain Berserko Writes a Better Ending
Credit: Kurt Markus
With the cattle ushered into the lower fields, McGuane heads to his writing cabin a few feet from the river. A fly rod leans against the wall, not far from the workbench where he ties his own flies, the sun room where he reads, and the study where he writes, surrounded by books. Notes and pages for a novel in progress called Happenstance are starting to pile up. The river clamors outside. Tess naps on the floor, intermittently farting.

On the wall is a poster that reads: "How would you like a nice cup of shut the fuck up?" Then, below: "Think before you speak, stupid."

Flanked by beloved volumes, McGuane is taking no shit for literature today; he won't join the chorus of doom-mongering about the death of reading and the fate of fiction in a digital age. He tells a story about his recent fishing trip to Belize, how he saw all these media types, including Brokaw, hunched over their BlackBerries and iPhones, madly clicking away. And he told them, "You know, guys, my side – the novelists – are going to give a clearer picture of the truth years from now than you guys." He asked them: What gives a richer portrait of the '20s? Newsreels, newspapers? Or The Great Gatsby?

"I strongly believe that literature can do something that nothing else can do," he says, "and that is embody the human spirit. And whether or not literature gets marginalized by some machine, that or a hula hoop or a 3D movie, I couldn't give a shit less."

About his own fate, he shows equal sangfroid. "I used to think I'd put on my headstone, No Stone Left Unturned Except This One. I've outlived my parents, and I've had some wonderful second chances in life. I feel remarkably uncheated. And if I had to cack on Monday, I wouldn't be thrilled to get the news, but I'd say, 'It's fair.'"

In his 50s, he worried that he might break a leg or suffer a heart attack while on a hunting trip in the backcountry, miles from anywhere, and die in the woods, alone. Now the prospect doesn't trouble him.

"Maybe I haven't been tested, but I have no fear of death at all. I was with Allen Ginsberg during the last year of his life, and he called all his friends and said, 'I'm on my way out, and it's kind of exciting.' I see it as kind of exciting, too. I like Wallace Stegner's remark that we owe the Earth a handful of minerals – that we have to give them back."

When his time comes, McGuane says, "I would prefer breaking my neck in a fall from a fast horse." Then he will donate his particular handful of minerals to the grove just a little ways up the river.