Author: Thomas McGuane
First published: 1969
Time: The 1960's
James Quinn, a young Michigan businessman who has recently assumed control of his father's tool and die business. Quinn has retreated to the Centennial Club in the Michigan woods for rest and relaxation. To his dismay, he learns that his old friend and rival, Vernor Stanton, has also arrived. Reluctantly at first, but then with some of his old enthusiasm, Quinn joins Stanton in duels and in his attempts to bring chaos to the Club and its members, eventually participating in the Club's abrupt demise. Throughout the novel, he is in a quandary between fighting Stanton's influence or playing along wholeheartedly and between being the responsible businessman or a fomenter of discord.
Vernor Stanton, a mad, extremely wealthy, and bored man who finds pleasure in disrupting his environment with practical jokes and outright cruelty. Using the Centennial Club as his stage, Stanton enlists the help of Quinn to disrupt and destroy the Club in less than a month. His “jokes” include such acts as dueling with antique pistols loaded with wax bullets in his cellar (a relatively harmless but very painful experience for Quinn), stealing a dignitaries' bus from a bridge dedication ceremony, fomenting the move to fire the Club's manager, and constantly irritating and antagonizing fellow Club members. He eventually goes officially insane, threatening and controlling the assembled Club members with a tripod-mounted machine gun. Some months later, he apparently partially recovers, buys the Club property, returns, and is watched over by Janey and “attendants” who carefully control his activities.
Janey, Stanton's girlfriend, who sticks by him in spite of his cruelty and madness. A physically attractive, concerned, and mild-mannered woman, Janey unintentionally attracts Quinn, who wants to rescue her from Stanton. She is completely loyal to Stanton, however, dismayed by many of his antics but at the same time fascinated by the charm and strength of the man. Her presence forces Quinn to see a side of Stanton that he would rather ignore, and this knowledge forces him to remain concerned and interested in what Stanton does.
Jack Olson, the Club's manager and an accomplished outdoorsman. He is a member of one of the families dispossessed when the Club acquired its extensive acreage, and he has spent a lifetime poaching on and managing Club property. He is so adept at hunting and fishing that he embarrasses the wealthy Club members who associate hunting and fishing with masculinity. He becomes a target for their ire as they plot with Stanton to get rid of him, even though they know that he is irreplaceable as a manager. When he realizes their plans, he hires Earl Olive as his replacement and disappears.
Earl Olive, an uneducated crook and purveyor of live bait. He is hired by Olson as the Club's manager, a move designed by Olson to avenge himself for the treatment he has received. Olive, who has no respect for the Club's “reputation,” brings in his crowd of rowdy friends, who party and fornicate openly. Painfully beaten and embarrassed by Stanton in a duel, he dynamites the dam, which drains the lake, and in the resulting chaos he dynamites the main lodge, the lifeguard's platform, and the flagpole. Finally captured by angry Club members, he is freed by Stanton, wielding a machine gun.
Fortescue, an old-time Club member and collector of military miniatures. While the Club is “at war” with Earl Olive and his crowd, Fortescue assumes command as its members attempt to handle Olive without the intervention of the law. He becomes a little despot as he attempts to live out his military fantasies, even to the point of outfitting his “army” at his own expense. As inept as he is enthusiastic, he is ultimately caught and tarred and feathered by Earl Olive and his gang.
Spengler, the Club chronicler. As a means of celebrating the first hundred years of the Club's existence, he has written a history of the Club and the surrounding area, focusing on the illustrious founding fathers and claiming to base all of this on what he calls “solid research.” Eventually disillusioned by the antics of the present members, he burns his chronicle before the centennial celebration, which includes the unearthing of the capsule buried by the Club's founders. This capsule contains information that destroys any notion that the founders were illustrious.
Scott, an old-time Club member and obsequious professor. He is basically a non-person, often present and speaking but always ignored.
Charles Murray, an old-time Club member. He is a homosexual, alternately chasing the heavyset daughter of Fortescue, Quinn, and others. He is also basically ignored by the other members, except when they are escaping his advances.