The Sporting Club, 1969
The Bushwhacked Piano, 1971
Ninety-two in the Shade, 1973
Nobody’s Angel, 1982
Something to Be Desired, 1984
Keep the Change, 1989
Nothing but Blue Skies, 1992
The Cadence of Grass, 2002
To Skin a Cat, 1986
Rancho DeLuxe, 1973
Ninety-two in the Shade, 1975 (adaptation of his novel)
The Missouri Breaks, 1975
Tom Horn, 1980 (with Bud Shrake)
An Outside Chance: Essays on Sport, 1980
The Longest Silence: A Life in Fishing, 1999
Some Horses, 1999
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.
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).