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|Born||Thomas Francis McGuane III
December 11, 1939
|Occupation||Writer, novelist, film director, screenwriter|
Thomas Francis McGuane III (born December 11, 1939) is an American writer. His work includes ten novels, short fiction and screenplays, as well as three collections of essays devoted to his life in the outdoors. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, The National Cutting Horse Association Hall of Fame and the Flyfishing Hall of Fame.
McGuane was born in Wyandotte, Michigan, the son of upwardly mobile Irish Catholic parents who moved to the Midwest from Massachusetts. His primary education included boarding school at Cranbrook School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, from which he graduated in 1958, but also included work on a ranch in Wyoming, ubiquitous fishing and hunting, and a difficult relationship with his alcoholic father that would later shadow much of his fiction. McGuane prefers to consider his roots matrilineal, on which side he is descended from a rich storytelling clan.
He envisioned himself as a writer from a very young age, admiring what he perceived as the adventurous life of a writer as much as the prospect of writing. When he was ten years old, he got into a physical altercation with a friend over differing descriptions of a sunset. He began a serious devotion to writing by the age of 16.
After briefly attending the University of Michigan and Olivet College, McGuane thrived academically at Michigan State University, where he received a B.A. in English in 1962 and met his lifelong friend Jim Harrison. At the Yale School of Drama (M.F.A., 1965), he studied playwriting and dramatic literature. A Wallace Stegner Fellowship to Stanford University (1966–67) provided him the time and resources to finish his first published novel, The Sporting Club (published with the assistance of Harrison in 1969). The Sporting Club is an anarchic portrayal of aristocratic decline and eventual ruin at an elite Michigan outdoor club. McGuane wrote the novel in a frenetic six weeks after his initial hopes for a published novel in The Dial were dashed by its editor at the time, E. L. Doctorow.
Upon completing his Stegner Fellowship, McGuane and his wife, Rebecca Portia Crockett (a direct descendant of Davy Crockett), began to divide their time between Livingston, Montana and Key West, Florida. When the screen rights to The Sporting Club were purchased, he invested the funds (wisely) in ranch property in Montana’s Paradise Valley. His second novel, The Bushwhacked Piano, a picaresque comedy chronicling the romantic, sporting, and entrepreneurial hijinks of Nicholas Payne, traipsing from Michigan to Montana to Florida and sprinkled with wry commentary on the current state of America throughout, appeared in 1971 to rave reviews. Jonathan Yardley in the New York Times hailed the 31-year-old McGuane as “a talent of Faulknerian potential,” while Saul Bellow described McGuane as “a language star.” The novel won the Rosenthal Award of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
McGuane’s third novel, Ninety-Two in the Shade (1973), was received as continued confirmation of his potential and is perhaps his best known, or at least his most widely acclaimed in literary circles. Shoving off with the ominous invocation, “Nobody knows, from sea to shining sea, why we are having all this trouble with our republic,” the novel utilizes young Thomas Skelton’s desire to be a Key West fishing guide as a foil for numerous expressions of word-drunk cultural, familial, and macho angst, culminating in the death of Skelton at the business end of rival guide Nichol Dance’s pistol.
Ninety-Two in the Shade was nominated for a National Book Award, and it represents the close of the first chapter in McGuane’s public literary life, a closing that may have also coincided with a transforming crash of his Porsche on an icy Texas highway. The crash left him without serious injury but speechless for several days, and he resolved to shed his monastic obsession with writing novels and to assume a new lease on life, a resolution substantially assisted by Hollywood’s offering of lucrative screenwriting opportunities.
Thus began the interlude in McGuane’s career when he became known as “Captain Berserko” and wrote screenplays for Rancho Deluxe (1973), shot in Livingston; The Missouri Breaks (1976), directed by Arthur Penn and starring Jack Nicholson and Marlon Brando; and McGuane’s own foray into directing with a film adaptation of 92 in the Shade (1975) starring Peter Fonda, Warren Oates, Margot Kidder and Harry Dean Stanton.
The excesses of those years are reflected – though hardly in full – by McGuane’s tumultuous affair with actress Elizabeth Ashley (captured in voyeuristic detail in her memoir, Actress), his divorce from his first wife Becky Crockett (who went on to marry Fonda), his marriage to Kidder, the birth of their daughter, Maggie (herself an author), and by his second divorce, all in the span of less than a year.
McGuane published his most autobiographical novel, Panama, in 1978. His first and, until Driving on the Rim (2010), only novel written in the first person, it is the story of a flash-in-the-pan rock star named Chet Pomeroy who suffers delusion after delusion and can only imagine salvation in the character of Catherine, a literary embodiment of McGuane’s feelings toward his third wife, Laurie Buffett, sister of Jimmy Buffett, one of McGuane’s Key West comrades. With the exception of positive reviews in The New Yorker and the Village Voice, the novel was mercilessly panned by critics as self-absorbed and a testament to wasted literary talent – notwithstanding McGuane’s protests that he considered it his best novel and that he was intentionally creating a lugubrious character who was not entitled, in the common view, to his feelings of loss and depression.
An ongoing struggle has ensued between McGuane and his reviewers concerning their expectations for his fiction, and their sense of how much McGuane-the-celebrity was intruding upon his work. The upheaval of the period concluded with the deaths of McGuane’s father, mother, and sister in the span of 30 months, and by McGuane’s admission that he felt no desire to write a comic novel like any of his first three works.
Life after Panama
After Panama, McGuane’s novels changed considerably. Beginning with Nobody’s Angel in 1981, the setting has consistently been in Montana (reflecting his own exodus from Key West), usually the fictitious town of “Deadrock” (presumably a play on “Livingston”), and the prose for the most part resists the pyrotechnics of Bushwhacked Piano or Ninety-Two in the Shade. Although the wit and the eye for comedy in human affairs remains, the problem of human – and particularly family – relationships is taken far more seriously than in his early novels. The familiar setting and certain personal parallels make for easy inferences of McGuane himself in his string of male protagonists in these novels, albeit with the obvious exception of the female protagonist, Evelyn, in The Cadence of Grass (2002).
McGuane is quick to point out, however, that unlike these protagonists, he has been happily married to Laurie Buffett since the late '70s and, in the estimation of one Montana friend (William Kittredge), has a “genius for living well,” the prescription for which seems to include ample family time, reading, writing, cutting horses, and flyfishing, all transpiring in the breathtaking Boulder River valley near McLeod, Montana, where McGuane has moved his ranch from Paradise Valley, Montana.
Among the later novels, Nothing but Blue Skies stands out as offering the broadest expression of McGuane’s thoughts on life in America and the American West. A hangover from the counterculture lingers, as does disillusionment over economic ambition. The West, perhaps, provides more opportunities for refuge from it all, though the refuge is diminishing every day. Still there are those who worship the “god of handsome land” (McGuane plainly among them) and try their best to understand the interpersonal shortcomings and cynicism of the locals, having faith that many of them are genuinely decent and commendable.
While the whole of McGuane’s fiction has only sporadic episodes of serenity and hopefulness – with Nothing But Blue Skies being one of the most hopeful novels -- Larry McMurtry has observed that McGuane’s nonfiction writing displays a markedly contrasting inner peace and natural spirituality. McGuane’s paeans to fly fishing (The Longest Silence), horses (Some Horses) and his life in the outdoors (An Outside Chance) capture his belief in the redeeming potential of nature and sporting ritual, and are widely considered among the finest writing in those genres.
McGuane's writing is noted for its mastery of language (particularly the early novels), a comic appreciation for the irrational core of many human endeavors, multiple takes on the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s, and an increasing devotion to family relationships and relationships with the natural world in the changing American West, primarily Montana, where he has made his home since 1968, and where his last five novels and many of his essays are set.
- "He's Left No Stone Unturned". Time. June 24, 2001. Retrieved 20 March 2012.
- Eder, Richard (January 22, 1976). "92 in the Shade (1975) Self-Indulgence Is Triumphant in '92 in the Shade'". The New York Times.
- American Audio Prose Library. "Interview with Tom McGaune". 1985
- "The Art of Fiction" (Thomas McGuane interview) Paris Review (Fall 1985)
- Garcia, Guy D. "He's Left No Stone Unturned". Time (December 25, 1989)
- McMurtry, Larry. "On the Big Two-Hearted River". New York Review of Books (June 27, 2002)
- Torrey, Beef (ed.) "Conversations with Thomas McGuane"
- Yardley, Jonathan. Review of The Bushwhacked Piano. New York Times (March 14, 1971)
- Works by or about Thomas McGuane in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
- Sinda Gregory, Larry McCaffery (Fall 1985). "Thomas McGuane, The Art of Fiction No. 89". The Paris Review.
- "A Conversation with Thomas McGuane," by Liz Lear, Key West, 1984
- "Conversations with Thomas McGuane" Edited by Beef Torrey
- "The Late Style of Thomas McGuane", Mark Kamine, The Believer.