Not Really Ranching

The answer to why a decade separates Thomas McGuane’s last two novels is as complicated as one of the charming scoundrels who populate his eight previous works. Rumor had it that the writer, rancher and former movie director had grown tired of the publishing business.

“That was part of it,” McGuane says from his ranch in Sweet Water County, Montana. “We have to drive everything we do through this aperture of New York City and I get tired of dealing with all that it requires. And we have such a busy life. I’ve got four children in the area, three grandchildren, a falling down ranch to prop up. It’s not that I’ve been sucking my thumb waiting for a better day. But writing another novel just got de-emphasized. My first book came in the ‘60s and it seemed appropriate to take a break at the quarter-century mark. And it gave me time to write about some things that I love. I didn’t care if they were important to the publishing business or not.”

There is another reason for the gap of ten years between McGuane’s last novels, a reason that reflects the struggle between the old and new West, a re-occurring theme in his own life. Tired of being tied to a desktop computer, he wrote his latest novel The Cadence of Grass (Knopf) out in long hand. “I felt like I couldn’t write unless I was at the computer terminal and I didn’t like that feeling. So I wrote this last one out by hand. But I can’t live with my writing. I just got a thin laptop. I’m hoping it will supplant my bad handwriting.”

Images of old and new Montana sit side-by-side in The Cadence of Grass. An ornate, mechanical cash register stands next to an electronic box used to process credit cards. A woman tries on a sexy black evening dress while wearing manure-stained boots. There’s a dried-out ranch and a bottling plant that produces “ECO FIZZ.”

Much of the novel is set in and around Bozeman, Montana and it’s here that the old-new contrasts are most apparent. New homes gnaw “through old grain fields toward the Bridger Mountains, one after the other like caterpillars.” Cattlemen sit next to “hippies” at a hole-in-the-wall diner that¹s surely The Stockyard Cafe. One of the books central characters picks up a misguided, anti-government malcontent at a music bar that resembles the Filling Station.

The Cadence of Grass revolves around a family patriarch¹s attempt to control his heirs, even after his demise. The death of Sunny Jim Whitelaw brings out the dysfunction in his family. Sunny Jim, in life a strong-willed dapper Dan, leaves the Whitelaw bottling plant to his wife and daughters on the condition that daughter Evelyn and ambitious son-in-law Paul drop their plans for divorce. Everyone who stands to profit scrambles for influence and wrestles with desires. Evelyn is at the center of it all.

Letting a woman take a leading role is a change for McGuane, whose past books focus on doomed bad-boys and ne’er-do-well males. While these sorts play a role in The Cadence of Grass, it’s Evelyn, and to a lesser extent her sister Natalie and their mother, who are the focus of the book’s central themes.

Creating a novel around a woman is something McGuane’s family life helped inspire. “I have three daughters and a wife and I know more now, maybe, about how women are different than men, how they think differently. I think all this made me move [Evelyn] more to the center of the book than I might have before.”

Reviewers familiar with McGuane’s history of troubled male leads have focused on Paul Crusoe, Evelyn’s estranged rattlesnake of a husband, a character straight out of McGuane¹s earlier books. Paul, with prison time for manslaughter under his belt, is having an affair with his parole officer. He wants to see the ranch subdivided.

McGuane agrees Paul is important, but as second fiddle to his estranged wife. “I just read one review out of New York that said Paul was the main character. I think of Paul as the antagonist, if not the anti-Christ. Evelyn is the protagonist. She’s the central consciousness of the novel.”

While the inheritance scenario shapes the story, it’s the side-trips in which McGuane takes his characters out of their element and into the Montana landscape, that are most revealing. These excursions, as when Evelyn drives off lost in a blizzard and is taken in by a strange, isolated farm family, could easily stand alone. In them, McGuane makes his best points about changing cultures standing shoulder­to-shoulder in our part of the country

McGuane has seen a host of generational and cultural shifts during his thirty-three years in Montana and his own life embraces facets of both old and new cultures. “Life in the West is changing. There’s a changing arc of relationship between the generations, a new century with a move into a new society. If there was a generational conflict in my grandparent’s day it wasn’t that they were moving into a new society. They continued to lead the lives their parents led.

“Now [in Montana] we have the famous dichotomy of old and new West. It’s the demographic things that are assailing us, things like the population turnover. We see people growing up on ranches that want to join rock bands. They’re making a bigger leap than the generations before them.”

McGuane’s previous novels dating back some thirty years make good use of old and new West conflicts. In 1992’s Nothing But Blue Skies, old and new Montana values battle to a draw as the book’s anti-hero, Frank Copenhaver, a businessman involved in livestock and real estate, tries to win back his estranged wife and bridge a generation gap with his daughter. Ten years later The Cadence of Grass, sees old and new ways seeking an uneasy truce as its characters pursue Sunny Jim’s legacy.

McGuane often turns notions of Western stereotypes and old-new conflict inside out. In Nothing But Blue Skies, Frank Copehaver’s young daughter runs off with notorious, not-so-young property-rights advocate Lane Lawlor, a crank who stirs audiences with declarations of “Montana is not a zoo” and “Why do these out-of-staters want us to have a system in Montana which has failed in Russia?” Lawlor wants Montana to dam its waterways at the state line. “If you are unlucky enough to run into someone who wants those rivers flowing elsewhere,” spouts Lawlor to a captive audience, “gut-shoot them at the border.”

McGuane doesn’t exactly deny that Lawlor types exist. “There’s this footloose libertarian movement running through the West and running through the administration and I don’t think it bodes well for the natural world,” he says.

McGuane says that the polarization between Montanans is as great as he’s seen it during his time here. The tension surfaces in Cadence when Evelyn, stuck in a blizzard, doesn’t know if she should trust the four men in camouflage who advance on her snow-bound car or flee.

The state’s changing demographics, he says, explain why Montanans are split between native and new-comer, old and new economies, roads and roadless supporters. “There’s lots of ill will between the sectors. More than half the state is losing population. And the other part is not changing numerically so much as qualitatively. The media doesn’t address these issues. What they talk about is celebrities. They don’t talk about tax flight, or the kids who’ve been through our schools. They don’t talk about the new waves of Christian fundamentalists. Instead, they focus on some movie star settling in. It¹s a non-reality for the folks in Montana.”

“Clearly we have to find common ground among the various factions in Montana, though I’ve not found a lot of progress in that direction. Some of the disagreements we face are insurmountable. We have this anti-government feeling in Montana agriculture but without government subsidies, Montana agriculture would not stand on its own. I¹m not sure how an industry like that can control our culture. At the same time, I don’t think the only solution is to leave the farms and ranches and go to work in the tourist industry. There are great mistakes to be made on both sides of the issue.”

That includes the environmental side. “The mistaken idea that farmers have nothing in common with environmentalists can be blamed on environmental elitism. We shouldn’t have to feel guilty when making our intentions clear or when finding common ground with those with whom we disagree.”

Appropriately, McGuane has fueled his environmental activism with opinions that are somewhat pragmatic. He has been on the board of the Craighead Institute and says he¹s currently involved with American Rivers and The Wild Salmon Center, a Portland-based, international organization seeking to save salmon migration routes in North America and Asia.

“I guess I get involved because I take so much from the natural world in terms of happiness that I feel I should do something in return,” he explains.

McGuane’s love for the natural world extends to horses, particularly cutting horses, and fishing. During the years between his last novel, McGuane wrote about both. His 1999 collection of essays, Some Horses (The Lyons Press), is a sort of steeds-I’ve-known that delves as deeply into four-legged behavior as any of his novels delve into human behavior.

This pairing of man and horse, McGuane and Montana, began in 1967 when he arrived from Michigan to work at the ranch of a girlfriend’s father. “But I didn’t get crazed about horses until I was living in Deep Creek in the late ‘60s. I always appreciated athletic skills and I thought roping would be a marvelous sport at the time. I just like the animals. It’s arbitrary really that it’s horses. It could have been cats.”

Another of McGuane¹s essay collections, The Longest Silence: A Life in Fishing (Knopf, Vintage Paperback), is a thoughtful consideration of time spent in Montana creeks, the Florida Keys and other locations around the globe. At the heart of the book is its deep respect for the creatures and the waters they inhabit.

But this isn’t heartfelt nature writing. McGuane’s cynical wit and dark sense of comedy colors the new novel just as it did his earlier ones. The book’s most ironic statement comes from Paul who indulges visions of development: “Money brings us closer to nature,” he declares.

“I thought it was one of the most poisonous remarks Paul could make,” McGuane explains. “I absolutely don’t believe that myself. But it is one of the floating fallacies in our world. Lots of people who acquire nature do it for economic reasons and they don’t seem to have much time to go there once the closing’s signed. I know ranchers who spend some fourteen days a year on their place.”

McGuane wants it known he doesn’t consider himself a real rancher. “I make the distinction that what I do is not real ranching. Real ranching is something that doesn’t leave much time for writing novels. It¹s a brutal job. You have to run so many cows in today’s world to make it. I personally can’t imagine how you¹d do with less than 500 cows. You’d be tied up all the time.”

Early in Cadence, Evelyn suggests that veteran rancher Bill Champion kept cattle just so he had an excuse to have horses. McGuane, who runs 200 yearlings and claims to do ranch work every day, says his own interest in ranching is a little deeper than rationalizing a passion for horses. “If you have land in this high desert climate you have to do something to cut-down on fires. Grazing is good for that. I¹ve always known ranchers and been interested in cattle culture. But it’s partly true that I¹m most interested in horses. ”

At one time, McGuane’s interests included movie-making. In the ‘70s, he built a reputation in Hollywood for his offbeat scripts. His screenplay for Rancho Deluxe, a cult favorite, starred Jeff Bridges and Sam Waterson with music by Jimmy Buffett. He directed Peter Fonda, Burgess Meredith and Warren Oates in 92 In the Shade, the story of warring charter boat captains in the Florida Keys based on his novel. He was connected for a time with Rancho Deluxe leading lady Elizabeth Ashley and was married to Margot Kidder. He wrote The Missouri Breaks, the twisted and infamous Western that starred Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson and Frederic Forrest. The film was badly received at release and considered a box-office flop. But time has seen its stake rise, due in part to the fact that 21st century audiences can better stomach the idea of bounty-hunter Brando wearing a dress than audiences could in 1976.

“I don’t miss those days,” McGuane says of his movie business experience. “But they were good days. In terms of going back to film making world, it’s not there for me to go back to. It’s very different now. In the ‘70s, the business was so abstract. It was the OK Corral. You could persuade people on your knees to do your project. Now it’s done by committee. It¹s like working for Enron.”

McGuane says it’s difficult for writers in the West to be taken seriously by the East Coast publishing establishment. “I think there are a lot of enlightened people in the publishing industry who know what goes on. But in general it stands to reason that people in the Northeast are interested in their own part of the country. It¹s like that Saul Steinberg cartoon the New Yorker ran looking across New York City to California with nothing in between. That’s a very bitter joke. When H.L. Mencken said he didn’t care about Willa Cather because he didn¹t care about Nebraska he referred to a truth. It’s why I think people in the East are less interested in the West. Unfortunately, the whole [publishing] industry is back there.”

Currently, the East Coast publishing industry is waiting for McGuane’s next effort, this one produced on the new laptop. “It will be a very different novel. I’ve been working on it intermittently for the last six months and should finish in two years. I’m such an improvisational writer that I would be trying to fool you if I told you what it’s about.” –Cabbage Rabbit

Photo of Thomas McGuane © Audrey Hall, courtesy of Knopf

A version of this interview was published in Tributary in 2002 and was reprinted in Conversations with Thomas McGuane, University Press of Mississippi, edited by Beef Torrey

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