Captain Berserko Writes a Better Ending

Mj 618_348_captain berserko writes a better ending
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.”

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.”

It was McGuane’s contentious relationship with his father that primed the pump for his first four novels, all of which are electrified by generational antagonism. Thomas McGuane Jr., the founder of a successful auto parts business in Detroit, died in 1976, before the two had a chance to resolve their conflicts. “Not that we necessarily would have,” says McGuane.

“He was a prosperous businessman who hated rich people,” McGuane says. “He was a Midwestern Republican who tried to lose his South Boston accent his whole life and whose best friend late in life was a Mexican immigrant named Johnny Escamillio. He was an Irish Catholic who always had Jewish partners, and who thought Jews were indeed the master race. He just thought it was a damned shame we weren’t Jewish!”

McGuane’s father, who loved the outdoors, introduced him to hunting and fishing but then got worried because, as McGuane says, “I was always out in the woods and didn’t seem to be interested in girls. My father thought, That’s weird – he might be gay.

“One day he said, ‘You seem to think you’re quite a good shot.’ And I was a superb shot, but he didn’t seem to know that. And he said, ‘I’ll tell you what; we’re going to go out’ – there was this private land, and there were a lot of pheasants there – and he said, ‘We’re going to see if you can hit something.’

“So we took our little Brittany spaniel out there, and pretty soon she goes on point, and so my dad says, ‘See if you can hit one.’ Well, this cloud of pheasants flies out, and I just start raining them down. And I’ll remember this till the day I die, my father on his hands and knees, saying, ‘Jesus Christ, stop shooting!'” McGuane still laughs at the memory.

When he went on to study English at Michigan State and then playwriting at the Yale School of Drama, his father derided his interest in writing as “fancy.” “He’d say, ‘Who do you think you are, Ernest Hemingway?'” McGuane recalls.

“Once he said, ‘You want to be a writer? Why don’t you write about something important?’

“I said, ‘Like what?’

“He said, ‘Like me.’

“Like you?

“He said, ‘I’m having a battle with alcoholism, trying to run a business, and you’re writing these frivolous stories. Why don’t you just write about me?’ It was sort of breathtaking.”

In a sense, McGuane’s father got his wish: His son went on to populate his early fiction with tough, take-no-prisoners authority figures just like his old man. And then – eerily – McGuane began to recapitulate his father’s life himself.

The next morning finds the writer drinking carrot juice in the kitchen.

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.

“Grease up, everybody!” McGuane yells after downing his juice.

Thirty-five years ago, this command might have been an incitement to something thrillingly delinquent. The legend is that one day in Key West around 1973, after evaporating his 20s with a monastic regimen of reading and writing that earned him the nickname “The White Knight,” McGuane spotted a lissome gal on a bicycle pedaling by his front porch and simply wandered off in pursuit.

By the time five years had passed, he had imbibed a hallucinogen or two; sailed off on a few “carnal adventures,” as he puts it; endured the end of two marriages (his first, of 10 years, to Becky Crockett, a direct descendant of Davy Crockett, and his second, lasting a mere six months, to Kidder); and, within a particularly rending 30 months, witnessed the deaths of both his parents and his sister.

He also did the novelist’s standard stations-of-the-cross tour through Hollywood, a crawl ranging from the high of directing the film version of Ninety-two in the Shade to the low of being fired from Tom Horn by Steve McQueen. When it was all over, McGuane was overjoyed to return to the solitary freedom of his typewriter.

Of the ’70s, McGuane has said that “everyone was in a slightly more festive mood.” And of his passage through the better part of that decade, he says, “It’s true that I’ve had a life that’s, shall we say, wild. When I was in Hollywood, I took quite a lot of drugs, I drank an unnecessary amount…. People think you’re going to die, and that excites them.” He had simply wanted, “as the girls used to say in the romantic dramas, to live a little.”

McGuane remembers going to a powwow on an Indian reservation with Harrison, with the two writers packing a full bottle of Jack Daniel’s. They were stopped by two Indian policemen, who made them pour all the whiskey out onto the ground. “You would have seen four grown men crying,” McGuane says with a laugh.

The turning point may have come in the late ’70s, when he was living on a ranch in the Paradise Valley outside Livingston, Montana. McGuane stood at the center of a wild scene that included the writers William Hjorstberg, Richard Brautigan, and Tim Cahill; the actors Jeff Bridges and Peter Fonda (who would later marry McGuane’s first wife); the painter Chatham; and the legendary director Sam Peckinpah.

Returning home from hunting one afternoon, he found the driveway crowded with pickups. His house in those days had become the group’s hangout. “They were all around the kitchen table,” McGuane says. “I was getting my stuff out of my truck, throwing it on the ground, and I got my rifle out, goddamn, and I fired it through my pickup truck just out of pique. All of a sudden people start running out, going, ‘Bye, Tom, we’re leaving.'”

By that point things had gotten so out of hand that McGuane fantasized about being thrown in prison. “That way I wouldn’t want to run around or call girls up on the telephone,” he says. Instead, McGuane quit drinking in 1981. “I didn’t have the craving for alcohol,” he says, “but I had very bad personality changes associated with it. And when I look around at my writer friends who are drinkers who get to be 70 or so – I mean, they are goners.”

He mentions as a cautionary example the Montana writer James Crumley, who died at 68 in 2008. “He did cocaine six days a week,” McGuane says. “Ate five times a day. Drank a bottle of whiskey every day. He said, ‘This is how I like to live. If I live 10 years less, so what?’ I couldn’t live that way, couldn’t do the things I like to do.”

“Tom went through some pretty rough reality checks before he surfaced,” Buffett says. “He was ahead of me on that learning curve, but not by much. I ask myself sometimes how we both made it through. A lot of characters from those days are dead.”

This era receives its epitaph in Panama, an early survivor’s note from the Me Decade that chronicles the consequences of near-terminal narcissism – including the possibility that no one may be home when you return from your epic trip of self-discovery.

On this bright morning, his head clear of anything stronger than carrot juice, McGuane saddles up to ride to the top of a mountain on the ranch to look for 50 or so cattle, a few of which need to be rounded up for a nearby cutting-horse competition next weekend. (Now ridden mostly in competition, cutting horses are specially trained to separate individual cows from a herd.)

“Anyone need more grease?” he asks, urging his fellow riders to lubricate themselves with sunscreen.

McGuane once described himself as “a neurotic fiction writer who’d like to be a cowboy.” More than 20 years later, his boots are worn and he sports a white Stetson hat, Wranglers, a checkered shirt, and a belt with a broad buckle.

We ride down a rutted track, past the house and outbuildings, across a bridge over the West Boulder, along the grove of trees where McGuane will one day be buried among the bones of beloved dogs and horses, then pass through a gate and out into an open field.

McGuane first went out West as a 16-year-old in the mid-’50s, working as a hired hand on a Wyoming ranch owned by a girlfriend’s father. When he returned home after that summer, his father talked him into playing a “cruel joke” on his mother, who was away visiting family in Massachusetts. “‘Call her and tell her you went on a cattle drive and you’re in Mexico and you’re not coming back,'” he said. “So I told her,” McGuane says. “And she said, ‘I knew this was going to happen.'”

The girlfriend of that summer is long gone, but his love for the land he surveyed remains. “I knew the minute I set foot out here, once I saw the wild rivers and the expansive landscape, there was never going to be anyplace else,” he says. “I get needled a lot by the rest of the family, but this is the niche I’ll die in. I just love being here. And I’m sorry I don’t have another hundred years on this property.”

The grade steepens. The horses pick their way around stones and brush, McGuane weaving his mount in and out of the party.

He arrived in Montana with his wife and son in the late ’60s after finishing graduate school at Stanford, using a postgraduate fellowship to subsidize a spell of trout fishing. He had nearly sold his first novel, but at the last instant E.L. Doctorow, then an editor, passed on the book. McGuane, devastated, dashed off another novel in six weeks, sent it to his friend Harrison, then headed to Mexico to fish and consider what he might do with his life. One day an armed man approached him on the beach and McGuane thought: I’m dead. Instead, the man – as it turned out, a Western Union operator – said, “Señor, your novel has been accepted.”

When Hollywood optioned that novel, The Sporting Club, the money set him up on a little ranch at a time when they went for $30,000 or so. In order to gain credibility with the locals, he started roping steers in weekend rodeos.

“If I could beat them during the rodeos, the whole geography changed,” McGuane says. “You had to take far less guff.” So he took up roping with his usual vengeance. “It was a little like learning to fish,” he says. “You had to figure some of it out, get a few tips, and then there was an arena where they had practice cattle. At least two nights a week, I’d go rope steers.”

He didn’t catch many for a year. “But it’s like anything else,” he says. “You practice: You make your loop, you slide it up, you straighten your rope, you make your loop, you throw it, you keep your thumb out of the dally, make your dally on the horn, pull your hand back so in case the dally slips, it’s not going to rip your hand off. If the steer hits too hard, you gotta slow it down. It’s 15 different things that you can learn, like a golf swing or anything else.”

He was starting to learn about horses, too, which became one of the great passions of his life. “You have to ride real hard and fast, standing up in your stirrups,” he says.

On a bluff in the distance, McGuane points out the vision-quest site of the 19th-century Crow chief, Plenty Coups. In the summer, the trail there is thick with rattlesnakes. A neighbor found what is thought to be Plenty Coups’s ceremonial buffalo knife on the property. McGuane and Laurie spent the night at the spot on New Year’s Eve before the millennium, watching the sun rise over their land.

“One reason the vision quest meant something to me,” McGuane says, “is because I had read the Gospel of Thomas, which has the same message as the Plains Indians, which is that we come from light. As you get older, you lose the ability to gather it. I can see why people head for the Sun Belt. You want light, you want to go back to where you came from.”

He likes to envision what Indian life on their place would have looked like. The Shoshone lived here before the Crow. “Using archaeological evidence, this guy built a Shoshone bow from wood and sheep rawhide,” McGuane says, with his usual interest in how things are made. “The damn thing shot 400 yards.”

He tells a story about an ancient rancher up the valley who grew up on the Cheyenne reservation. “This old man said, ‘Here’s what the Indians are like.’ He said, ‘I was down there and one of the old Indians died, and his nephews took him out in the wintertime, and they put the corpse on a sled, and they were pulling it along a ridge, and tears were streaming down their faces, and they were taking him to a place where they could chop a hole in the ice and bury him. They loved this old man, and they had him all bundled up in a blanket.’

“They’re going along the ridge, and whoever was pulling the sled dropped the rope, and the sled started bouncing down the hill. And the old rancher said, ‘The Indians were rolling on the ground with absolute helpless laughter.’ And he said, ‘That’s what Indians are like.'”

McGuane, laughing, says, “And I thought, ‘Boy, oh boy, I feel like an Indian.'”

We reach the top of the mountain with its 360-degree view of the ranges surrounding us. McGuane points them out: the Bridgers, the Absarokas, the Crazies, the Gallatins.

On the way down, the horses spook when they pass by a fawn’s leg lying in the tall grass on the side of the trail. Laurie spots five cows in a draw below, half a mile away, and McGuane gallops away to force them down the mountain to grassland closer to the river.

“Buster Welch has this principle of schooling horses,” McGuane says later, back at the house. “Never ask the horse to do something it’s going to do anyway. I’ve seen Buster send horses back because they’re too well broke. He said they’re listening to the rider all the time. A good horse will want something to happen on its own, and a seed of creativity is that feeling of wanting something to happen.”

The horses have taught him to trust such intuition and otherworldly intelligence in his writing – that the imagination should never be too well broke.

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.

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