Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Thomas McGuane’s ‘Crow Fair’ portrays lost souls humorously, tenderly and affectionately

Photo by Anne Sherwood

The characters in Crow Fair, Thomas McGuane’s newest short story collection, are mostly losers – people who are on their way down or already there. A fair number are old people sliding into death or dementia. Yet, all of these hapless folks are presented with a kind of tender empathy and affectionate humor. We recognize them (and perhaps ourselves in them) and, maybe, shake our heads a little ruefully but we aren’t given cause to sneer.

McGuane lives in Montana and the open plains and hills of that region, as well as its culture and history, are key to his stories. This geographic setting “…is the backdrop to funny, antic, and affecting stories of growing up, of romantic and family life, and of finding or failing to find
one’s place in the world.” (Stefan Beck, The Christian Science Monitor, 3/20/15).

In “Weight Watchers,” the opening story, the narrator’s father has shown up on his doorstep, having been banished from his own house:

My mother had thrown him out again, this time for his weight. She’d said that he was insufficiently committed to his weight-loss journey and that if he hit two-fifty she wouldn’t live with him anymore.

The father is a womanizer, a blowhard, a Viet Nam vet who’d “been in a lot of firefights and loved every one of them,” and still kept “pictures of dead VC draped over the hood of his jeep, like deer-camp photos.” The son, who feels his father had never wanted him, copes as best he can but is relieved when the father leaves:

…I’ve been asked if I was damaged by my family life, and the answer is a qualified no; I know I’ll never marry, and, halfway through my life, I’m unable to imagine letting anyone new stay in my house for more than a night – and preferably not the whole night….It’s not that there’s anything wrong with my ability to communicate: I have a cell phone, but I only use it to call out.

In “Grandma and Me,” the narrator lives in an old hotel owned by his blind grandmother (whose own home is in a neighborhood he calls Snob Hollow). He is supposed to look after a number of buildings she owns: “not exactly as a maintenance man – I don’t have such trade skills – but more as an overseer, for which Grandma paid me meagerly, justifying her stinginess with the claim that I was bleeding her white.” He also tends bar in an almost-empty saloon she bought when there were more people in town.  Now, “…tips were scarce, but it was something to do and kept me near the hooch.”

“In families like mine,” he says, “grandmothers loom large as yetis.” Without any sense of irony, he says that his father was “a depressed boob. He was a case of arrested development who never made a dime, but Grandma supported him in fine-enough style for around here and at the far end of her apron strings.” In considering his own DUIs and other failings, he thinks of his grandmother, “who may in fact be the source of my problems. I knew that thought was a tough sell which defied common sense, but it was gathering plausibility for me.”

He takes Grandma for a picnic near a river because she loves to smell the things she can no longer see. A body floats by. The narrator calls the sheriff and then excitedly abandons the blind old lady, racing off to watch the body being pulled out of the river downstream.  He expects to get admiring attention for having spotted the corpse.  When this doesn't happen, he heads off for a night of drinking before he finally remembers, “Grandma!”

Several of the stories concern infidelity. In “On a Dirt Road,” a wife claims to be meeting friends for pizza but, when her husband decides to surprise her by joining them, he discovers there was never such a meeting planned. In “Lake Story,” a couple who have been conducting a secret adulterous affair for years are caught but the ending is unexpected.

Some of the most affecting stories are about elderly people:  A man and his sister have put their father in a nursing home in “A Long View to the West.” They take turns sitting with him as he tells the same stories over and over, stories his children have heard repeated hundreds of times over the years so often that they can mouth the punch lines. After they have picked out a grave plot for him, the son returns to the hospital and says to his father:

“What’re you doing?” He wished he hadn’t asked.
“Dying. What’s it look like?”
Clay didn’t know what to say, so he said, “And you’re okay with that?”
“How should I know? I’ve never done it before.”

In “An Old Man Who Liked to Fish,” an elderly man disappears and his wife, suffering from early stages of dementia is convinced he’s run off with a woman named “Francine.” When told her husband is dead, her response is, “Well, I hope she’s happy now.” And in the title story, “Crow Fair,” two brothers visit their mother in a nursing home. She doesn’t recognize them but the things she says change everything either of them has ever believed about her and their father.

“Stars” mixes humor and horror especially well.  Jessica, an astronomer, is losing her grip after a disturbing confrontation in an isolated area involving a trapped wolf and the man who kills it.
She is so upset that she decides to take a leave from her job.  As she drives away, traffic is heavy and she is tailgated by a woman who gives her the finger. She slams on her brakes, is rear-ended, and calls the police. The cop knows the tailgater and blames the accident on Jessica:

“You caused that accident by braking suddenly.”
“You know the law. She rear-ended me.”
“Don’t you lecture me, lady,” he shouted.
Jessica gave him time to settle down before raising her eyes to his and asking, “What is this really about, Officer? Is it because you’re short?”

Photo by Bruce Weber
Thomas McGuane is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the author of ten novels, three works of nonfiction, and two other collections of short stories. According to Stefan Beck, McGuane is also a member of the Hall of Fame of the National Cutting Horse Association in Texas (where riders are judged on their prowess at separating one animal from a herd). “In the 1970s, when McGuane partied with the likes of [Jimmy] Buffett, Peter Fonda, and Sam Peckinpah, he was nicknamed Captain Berserko. Today, at 75, he looks like a cross between the World’s Greatest Grandpa and the Marlboro Man.” (Christian Science Monitor, 3/20/15)

1 comment:

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