Western mythologies

Although there are hucksters, dreamers and long-shot dice rollers sprinkled up and down the eastern seaboard, people who really want a fresh start in America go West. For the past 37 years, Thomas McGuane has been showing how this mythology calls like a siren song to Americans. “Panama” brought us the tale of a drugged-up celebrity reflecting on his years of decadence, while “Keep the Change” imagined a struggling artist washing up on a Montana ranch.

Like this hero, McGuane, too, has been shaped and molded by his years in Montana. The longer he has remained in Big Sky Country, the cleaner his prose has become. Gallatin Canyon, McGuane’s latest collection of stories, features some of his most elegantly varnished work yet. Like the Irish novelist William Trevor, McGuane has folded, twisted and crammed entire family histories into these stories.

The heroes of these stories are no one special—retirees or near-retirees trying to keep a low profile yet still affected by the slippage of lust or greed, sometimes loneliness. Although each story bears McGuane’s lean muscularity and deeply masculine cadences, there is a pleasing variety of perspectives here.

Like Annie Proulx, McGuane has found a way to write of and about a simple, hard-working people without his slapstick ever turning into condescension. Through them, he also registers his irritation with the changes in the Montana landscape. In “Aliens,” a 75-year-old lawyer indulged a life-long dream “and returned to live in the West,” only to discover “Montana seemed like a place he had once read about in a dentist’s office.” The book’s title story includes a long riff about the way tourists have made the place dangerous:

“This combination of cumbersome commercial traffic and impatient private cars was a lethal mixture that kept our canyon in the papers, as it regularly spat out corpses. In my rearview mirror, I could see a line behind me that was just as long as one ahead, stretching back, thinning and vanishing around a green bend. There was no passing lane for several miles. A single amorous elk could have turned us all into twisted, smoking metal.”

That “amorous elk” is pure McGuane—comedy often occurring at the nexus of human folly and the natural world. Reading these stories, you get the sense that McGuane shares the sentiments of a character in “Miracle Boy,” which recounts the death of an Irish matriarch and the chaos it spreads across a wide Michigan family. “You’ll find this outfit,” the man says to his son, “in street shoes.” In other words, people who have cut themselves off from the natural world are not to be trusted; they are, in a way, unnatural.

From birth, we contain the secrets of our demises, and in Gallatin Canyon, McGuane tells one story after the next about characters struggling with that knowledge. In “North Coast,” two youngish heroin users track down an Indian relic in the Pacific Northwest—risking mauling by a bear in order to get the money for a year of drug use. “He kept his eyes on the lighted swatch of huckleberries near their path and saw the moving furrow in the bushes,” McGuane writes of his impertinently brave hero, “but an encounter never came.” This luck, these stories powerfully remind us, eventually runs out.