For the past five decades and across twenty books of fiction and nonfiction—his first novel, The Sporting Club, was published in 1969—Thomas McGuane has been forging one of the most distinctive Midwestern fictions in the American canon. For Americans, west is the only direction with true promise. Manifest Destiny might have been an audacious and defining belief in the nineteenth century, but it is also a literary and spiritual quality, one that pioneers forth from the vicissitudes and fertility of American imagination. Going west made us big and got us rich. McGuane’s Irish Catholic parents went west, too, from Massachusetts to Michigan, where McGuane was born in 1939. You will find both Michigan and Key West in his work, and you will find Catholics, too, but it is Protestant Montana, where he has lived on a seven-hundred-acre ranch since the early 1970s, that takes up the most real estate in his fiction. In a 1987 interview McGuane says that he and his family “saw ourselves as Catholics surrounded by Protestant Midwesterners,” which might, he thinks, account for the outsider motif that veins through much of his work. Outsiders are important, after all: they’re usually the only ones with the clearest view of what’s going on.
You can easily roll off a litany of those writers who have given us the special shape and syntax of their Wests—Willa Cather, Wallace Stegner, Sam Shepard, Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy, William Kittredge, Ivan Doig, Lee K. Abbott, Rick Bass, Jim Harrison, Louise Erdrich, Pam Houston among them—and McGuane’s spot on that list is secure but also something of a singularity. His West doesn’t smell or sound like other Wests, like the West we think we know, all that lawlessness and landscape, that bandit logic and whiskey love under stopless skies. McGuane’s West has its own sly grammar of understanding, the seriousness of spirit and place often punctuated by an irreverent, absurdist humor.
In McGuane’s most memorable fiction, his comedic register operates in tandem with an off-kilter sincerity, the kind that unfolds at the edge of irony, those ambiguous borderlands of politeness where pathos is not disregarded, only downgraded. Eros is his métier: the eros for nature and place, the vocal eros men have for women and the muted eros men have for one another. McGuane is our great poet of male camaraderie, of masculine metaphysics, of the jittering pas de deux between fathers and sons, brothers and brothers, friends with half a century behind them. The tone of his best fiction, in his early work especially, always proclaims: This is the way it shall be, and you will accept it.
Along comes Cloudbursts, his collected and new stories, 555 pages of grasping after fugitive truths. In its apprehension of a certain American mode of being—one narrator says of himself and a friend: “We are just doing our job, just two little old Americans”—Cloudbursts is an indispensable monument to slip alongside the work of John Cheever and Peter Taylor. The book’s epigraph is from a story by Taylor—“The world was still changing, preparing people for one thing and giving them another”—and you see why: McGuane’s are overall decent people in a rabidly indecent world, Midwesterners trying to manage their arthritic souls but unprepared for what that management entails. His men and women writhe along the seams of regret and longing, often caught in storms they’ve stirred up themselves and often trying to dodge “the wrath of some inattentive god,” as one narrator has it. In the story “The Road Atlas,” one character quips to another: “Your search for meaning is a bore.” The cosmos might be without meaning, but life is not without worth. McGuane’s people go looking, as one character puts it, for “the kind of light in a desolate place that guides a traveler still yearning for a destination.”
Here are stories that proudly chronicle the stumblings and strivings of blue-collar Midwesterners. About “countrypeople,” the narrator of “Sportsmen” says: “Once you get the gist of their ways, you can get along anyplace you go because they are everywhere and they are good people.” But there’s a dynamic variety of circumstance at work in Cloudbursts. In “Sportsmen,” a boy is paralyzed in a diving accident and the narrator is ravaged by guilt and the inevitable wedge of time that separates friends. In “The Millionaire,” with its distinctly Cheeverian family ethos, a pregnant teen is about to surrender her baby to a rich, childless couple. In “Like a Leaf,” a retired cattleman for whom “town life doesn’t come easy” perches at his window and spies on the “desperate characters” who are his neighbors, attempting to understand “the human situation.” “Dogs,” about a man called Howie Reed who goes insane and begins stealing his friends’ beloved canines, is a mere five pages but has comedy enough to sustain your whole day: “To be the leading adulterer in a small Montana town,” Howie says, “is to spend your life dodging bullets. It is the beautiful who suffer.” In “Ice,” a skater loses his bearings at night on a frozen lake, in flight from “those forces determined to make me worthless in my own eyes,” questing for “secret existences I might discover in places where no human is expected” and reciting “the Lord’s Prayer in a quavering voice.” “Skirmish” and “Hubcaps” are begrudgingly nostalgic for the childhood sublime. “Flight” and “Old Friends” pay homage to the unassailable dominion and dominance of nature: “They followed a seasonal creek toward the low hills in the west where the late-morning sun illuminated towering white clouds whose tops tipped off in identical angles. The air was so clear that their shadows appeared like birthmarks on the grass hillsides.” That birthmark simile is exquisite.