Authors: Thomas McGuane

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist, screenwriter, and essayist

Author Works

Long Fiction:

The Sporting Club, 1969

The Bushwhacked Piano, 1971

Ninety-two in the Shade, 1973

Panama, 1978

Nobody’s Angel, 1982

Something to Be Desired, 1984

Keep the Change, 1989

Nothing but Blue Skies, 1992

The Cadence of Grass, 2002

Short Fiction:

To Skin a Cat, 1986

Screenplays:

Rancho DeLuxe, 1973

Ninety-two in the Shade, 1975 (adaptation of his novel)

The Missouri Breaks, 1975

Tom Horn, 1980 (with Bud Shrake)

Nonfiction:

An Outside Chance: Essays on Sport, 1980

The Longest Silence: A Life in Fishing, 1999

Some Horses, 1999

Biography

Thomas Francis McGuane III is a twentieth century American novelist whose novels have received favorable attention from scholars as well as the reading public. The son of Thomas Francis and Alice Torphy McGuane, McGuane exhibited his inclination toward writing at age ten by collaborating with a friend on a novel that was never finished. His other youthful passion, which he still pursues, was sportfishing, an activity that he features in most of his novels. The close relationship between McGuane and his father disintegrated as the elder McGuane immersed himself in both work and alcohol. This father-son relationship became a consistent theme in McGuane’s fiction.{$I[AN]9810001047}{$I[A]McGuane, Thomas[MacGuane, Thomas]}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;McGuane, Thomas[MacGuane, Thomas]}{$I[tim]1939;McGuane, Thomas[MacGuane, Thomas]}

Thomas McGuane

(Marion Ettlinger)

McGuane attended and graduated from Cranbrook, an exclusive Michigan boarding school. His college career was not a calm period in his life: He was dismissed from the University of Michigan for not passing his classes; he briefly attended Olivet College, finally receiving a degree (with honors) from Michigan State University. After college, McGuane considered becoming a Navy pilot but enrolled in Yale Drama School instead. In 1965, he received his master of fine arts from Yale, and, after a year in Spain and Italy, he spent the 1966-1967 academic year at Stanford University on a Wallace Stegner Fellowship. McGuane has not wished to teach; instead he has balanced writing novels with writing screenplays, sportfishing in the Florida Keys, raising cutting horses in Montana, and competing in rodeos.

McGuane’s novels strongly reflect his experiences and interests. When he was a boy, his family spent the summers at a fishing camp in Northern Michigan similar to the setting of his first novel, The Sporting Club. Later, the McGuane family summered in Venice, Florida, where he spent many hours sportfishing, the principal activity in Ninety-two in the Shade. At age sixteen, while a student at Cranbrook, McGuane ran away to a Wyoming ranch owned by the father of a girlfriend. He returned avowedly antisocial, using this incident in his second novel, The Bushwhacked Piano. In addition to having these specific events to use in his writing, McGuane was further inspired by being surrounded with the “heavy duty Irish wit” of a family of “fantastic storytellers.”

The reading public did not respond to McGuane’s early novels as enthusiastically as the critics did. In order to support his family, he turned to screenwriting and directing, work that put him in the middle of the Hollywood scene for several years. After a serious auto accident in 1972 outside Dalhart, Texas, he immersed himself in an excessive lifestyle, including bouts with drugs and alcohol, that earned him the nickname “Captain Berserko” through the mid-1970’s. The turmoil of these years–affairs with two actresses (Elizabeth Ashley and Margot Kidder), divorce from his first wife, and the unexpected deaths of his sister and father–is evident in his later work. McGuane’s marriage in 1977 to Laurie Buffett, the sister of his friend singer Jimmy Buffett, stabilized his life considerably. His novels reflected this change in attitude, becoming more honest and down to earth and less flamboyantly stylistic.

McGuane’s first three novels present a comic picture of an America that has become a degenerate and chaotic civilization subject to “declining snivelization.” The main characters of these novels are men (and an adolescent) who have recognized this state of affairs and are trying to find a set of values that will enable them to endure. The protagonist of The Sporting Club, a millionaire named Vernor Stanton, sets out to destroy the aristocratic Centennial Club by bringing in a criminal as caretaker. Challenging and aiding him is the less radical James Quinn, who feels compelled to match Stanton’s escapades. This struggle provides the conflict in the novel, resulting in the physical destruction of the club and the mental degradation of its members. The Bushwhacked Piano, which won McGuane the Rosenthal Award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, is a picaresque tale about Nicholas Payne, an adolescent who wanders through Michigan, Montana, and Florida with C. J. Clovis, who builds and sells “bat towers” to repel mosquitoes. Payne pursues Ann Fitzgerald, a girl who takes photographs as proof of her experience. In Ninety-two in the Shade, nominated for the National Book Award, two fishing guides engage in a turf war that begins with a practical joke and ends with murder.

The critics reacted favorably to these first three novels. McGuane’s later works are darker in tone, however, reflecting to a degree some of the mental trauma of his Hollywood years. In Panama, rock star Chester Pomeroy, an overnight sensation, loses control of his own actions because of his excessive lifestyle. The protagonist in Nobody’s Angel, former Army captain Patrick Fitzpatrick, cannot handle his sister’s suicide and the changes in the ranch country of Montana. Lucien Taylor, the protagonist of Something to Be Desired, leaves the United States Information Service in Latin America and finds fulfillment in turning a Montana ranch into a hot springs health resort. McGuane continued to explore the conflict between the old and new West, a theme present throughout his fiction, in the short-story collection To Skin a Cat. These stories mark a resurgence of the sharp wit McGuane displayed in his early novels, but with less cynicism than in those works. In Keep the Change, the drifting artist Joe Starling, Jr., returns West to reconcile himself with his father’s legacy. Nothing but Blue Skies follows the decline of an embittered real estate agent, Frank Copenhaver, who becomes involved with Orville Conway, a chicken farmer, and his outlandish scheme to house chickens in vacant hotels. The Cadence of Grass recounts the aftermath of the death of Sunny Jim Whitelaw, whose will demands that his elder daughter reconcile with her rogue of a husband before his estate can be disbursed. This requirement has ramifications throughout the family and into their ranch community in Montana.

Although some critics considered McGuane less of a novelist because of the years in Hollywood, his later novels received the same high praise as his first three. In 1989 he received the Montana Centennial Award for Literature. McGuane has been able to balance style and content, producing works that are honest and emotionally effective, evoking comparisons with many famous authors, among them William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and, most notably, Ernest Hemingway. McGuane responds to these comparisons by saying that he likes these authors but is not clear how much influence they have had on his own writing. He discounts any similarities between his writing style and that of Hemingway, while admitting that they do enjoy the same types of outdoor activities (sportfishing and hunting in particular) and places (Key West, the Midwest, and the Far West).

BibliographyCarter, Albert Howard, III. “Thomas McGuane’s First Three Novels: Games, Fun, Nemesis.” Critique 17 (August, 1975): 91-104. Although McGuane’s use of the pathos and humor inherent in competition has become decidedly more sophisticated as he has matured, this article is essential for understanding the early novels.Ingram, David. “Thomas McGuane: Nature, Environmentalism, and the American West.” Journal of American Studies 29 (December, 1995): 423-459. Analyzes environmental and outdoors themes in McGuane’s work.Klinkowitz, Jerome. The New American Novel of Manners: The Fiction of Richard Yates, Dan Wakefield, Thomas McGuane. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986. Examines the twentieth century novel of manners and customs. Includes index.McClintock, James I. “‘Unextended Selves’ and ‘Unformed Visions’: Roman Catholicism in Thomas McGuane’s Novels.” Renascence 49 (Winter, 1997): 139-151. Focuses on McGuane’s works from The Sporting Life through Nothing but Blue Skies, comparing him with a host of writers including, particularly, Flannery O’Connor.Masinton, Charles G. “Nobody’s Angel: Thomas McGuane’s Vision of the Contemporary West.” New Mexico Humanities Review 6 (Fall, 1983): 49-55. This article analyzes Rancho DeLuxe and Nobody’s Angel and insightfully concludes that McGuane finds the contemporary West absurd and without hope.Morris, Gregory L. “Thomas McGuane.” In Talking up a Storm: Voices of the New West. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994. A 1989 interview with the novelist, in which he discusses his relationship to the West, his working methods, and the state of the American novel.Rebein, Robert. Hicks, Tribes, and Dirty Realists: American Fiction After Postmodernism. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2001. An assertion that gritty realism has gained ascendency over metafiction in American writing. Examines the works of McGuane, Dorothy Allison, Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Larry McMurtry, and Louise Erdrich.Wallace, Jon. The Politics of Style: Language as Theme in the Fiction of Berger, McGuane, and McPherson. Durango, Colo.: Hollowbrook, 1992. Examines McGuane’s use of language. Contains a bibliography.Westrum, Dexter. Thomas McGuane. Boston: Twayne, 1991. The first book-length study of McGuane’s fiction. It provides a basic biography and a detailed overview of the author’s work through Keep the Change.
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