Small Town Doc

Tom McGuane came to our small town’s independent bookstore when his latest novel, Driving On the Rim, was released. Reading and answering questions in a place about 20 miles from where (presumably) Rim takes place, McGuane proved himself considered, thoughtful, insightful and modest. A handsome man with an easy way about him, McGuane has long been a resident of Montana, and his knowledge of the state and observant familiarity with its various characters makes the book a standout for its slice of American life not often served up, a la mode or no. If only small town life were really this cruel and engaging. Oh, wait….

Like its author, Driving On the Rim is thoughtful, considerate and prone to quiet insight. Dr. Berl Pickett realizes on the first page the “borrowed nature of his life.” Cursed, or as he’s told near the end of the book, blessed with a religious crackpot mother and a more practical father, Pickett is more compassionate than most of the doctors he works with and certainly more divided. He revels in the relationships he has with patients and his medical decisions often reflect their lives and personalities in the Rx.  Like the time he tells one young abusive spouse that he should go ahead and shoot himself.

If Pickett, a bachelor and self-described nincompoop who likes to sleep around, hadn’t had a fling with the man’s wife when she was single, his conscience may not have bothered him so much. But it does. And even before the event stands him up with trouble, mostly with the hospital board’s chairman whose wife Pickett has also slept with, the doctor knows he must heal himself.

That requires a lot of healing. Pickett, thanks to his mother, has identity problems from the start. A nymphomaniac aunt who uses the adolescent Pickett didn’t help. Nor does his proclivity to drink and otherwise over-indulge.  The only thing that does help, he realizes after it’s taken away, his work. He’s not entirely a bad person. He selflessly rescues a beautiful crop dusting pilot from her about-to-explode wreck of a plane, an act that causes him more grief.

All these shenanigans are delivered at the pace of a small-town parade; considered and thoughtful like the author himself.  The common wisdom that Pickett pulls from his experiences seems uncommon to the folks around him who seem just as egotistical and deluded as any city slick. Pickett is different in that he see himself as “an odd combination of competence and imbecility. That’s he’s more self-realized than most doesn’t really help. He keeps making the same mistakes.

McGuane’s tone reflects all this.  The slowness gives him time to reflect. In a reference to Don Quixote, that ties to his decripit but mostly faithful Olds 88, he thinks:

“I did feel a truth in the idea that just beneath our follies and day-to-day distractions a terrible grinding mechanism was at work and had a full tank of gas. This was not necessarily a bad thing and gave gravity to our madness and ignorance, our persiflage, our deviousness and clamor for reknown.”

McGuane, now an old hand, doesn’t waste words, especially tied to symbol.  At one point, he tries on his dead, religiously-crazed mother’s reading glasses and finds that they don’t fit and he can barely see through them. A sprinkler, like Pickett himself, is “in a bad fight with the west wind.” But he’s most astute when giving bits of wisdom uncommon to small town life. After one rough patch, he observes, “It seemed that believing we were surrounded by people who enjoyed being fooled is what united all Americans.”

This book, as the epigram that fronts it suggests, is about quiet acceptance of the double life we all live. It’s also about work as a source of our identities, false as that may be; the role of religion, not all of it good, in our moral development, and the danger of casually resisting its influence. It’s overriding theme is the problem of how to live with the hand dealt, what to do with one’s time. “Only animals really knew how to live,” Pickett observes. That he comes out at the end alive with a new sense of how to occupy his time is not so much a triumph but a sort of resignation, all the eye-opening that precedes it  included.-Cabbage Rabbit


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