He was the king of Key West, living the Hemingway life of fishing, drinking and writing, prowling the streets of the southernmost U.S. city as the last, best literary hope of his generation. Being tagged “the next Ernest Hemingway” was a blessing and a curse to Thomas McGuane in the early 1970s. It put him on the map and set him apart from the other young literary guns. But the tag became a yoke that he carried for years. Nobody with as much originality as McGuane would settle for being the next anybody.
But that time in Key West was certainly vital to McGuane’s development as a great American novelist, and now, at 70, he is prepared for his closeup. He’s long gone from Key West — though he still visits Florida annually — and lives on an isolated ranch in Montana cut off from the American literary establishment.
So he’s amused by the attention lavished on his new novel, Driving on the Rim, the story of Berl Pickett, a doctor in a small Montana town whose life goes seriously (and sometimes comically) awry after he tries to cover up a friend’s suicide attempt. It was published Tuesday, and by the looks of things, literary canonization might be imminent.
The tastemakers of American journalism — correspondents from Vanity Fair, the New York Times and other bibles of modern culture — have made the slow drive up his road (recommended top speed, 5 mph) to the beautiful home he shares with his wife of 32 years, Laurie Buffett McGuane. Yes, he’s related by marriage to that other artist who found his identity in Key West back then, Jimmy Buffett.
McGuane’s ranch outside Livingston, Mont., is an artist’s conception of heaven. He’s a cutting-horse champion and rides daily, and he writes in a cabin at the junction of two streams. He sits in his easy chair, pets his dog and speaks only loudly enough to be heard over the rushing water.
It’s amusing that McGuane has settled into the neatly tied-up happy ending that he has avoided in his fiction. Whether it was the early Florida books — principally Ninety-Two in the Shade (1973) and Panama (1978) — or his long run of Montana books, including Driving on the Rim, McGuane’s novels are comic, complex and infused with the sort of depth lacking in a lot of modern writing.
In the Key West days, Tom McGuane was a legendary wild man. By the mid 1970s, he was tabloid fodder. He directed the film version of Ninety-Two in the Shade and began a Tilt-a-Whirl life of sexual escapades. He divorced his wife, Becky, and she ran off with both lead actors inNinety-Two, Warren Oates and Peter Fonda. (She was married to Fonda for 35 years.) McGuane had a wild and public affair with actor Elizabeth Ashley, who made their romance even more public when she documented nearly every act of coitus in a memoir. While that affair continued, he fell in love with the film’s young starlet, Margot Kidder, whom he eventually married. That marriage ended quickly, and McGuane fell in love with his best friend’s sister. Decades of sobriety and artistic maturity followed.
He was recently named to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was also named to the Angler’s Hall of Fame. Both awards hang on the wall as he chats about his long career.
On his charisma:
I ran around being a little bit of a pied piper. I had people following me wherever I went, including Livingston, Key West, and it became kind of a problem because I was always there because the kids were going to school and the party people would arrive. It was not unattractive, but it was hard to keep up with my life.
I was a little bit different. I had a family. Everybody now talks about the old days in Key West. I thought by 1978 it had become unbearable. . . . I eventually had to avoid the high jinks.
On being dubbed the new Hemingway (which he called “journalistic laziness”):
I had ambivalence about it, because there were a lot of things that Hemingway wrote that I really liked. I liked Hemingway better before I began to be called Hemingwayesque.
After that kind of identity descended on me, I resisted it because I didn’t think it applied to me. It really had more to do with the fact that I was a fiction writer, was in Key West, and liked hunting and fishing. But periodically somebody will say, “Gee, I reviewed one of your books. You don’t write like Ernest Hemingway at all,” like that’s a huge surprise.
I have more of a sense of humor than he had, and I’m Irish Catholic and he was a very Protestant kind of presence. He and I wouldn’t have gotten along for five minutes. He wouldn’t like me. I’d outfish him and I’d outshoot him. I don’t like bullies, and he struck me as a bully. He was a great writer at his best, and to me, “his best” would be over by the time he was 29.
On the reaction to Ninety-Two in the Shade, his great Key West novel:
The thing I’m really proud of is that Tennessee Williams (a Key West resident) read it and he said, “I’ve never read a novel about Key West that seemed to be written by someone who’d lived here all of his life.” I said, “Well, I haven’t lived here all my life.” He said, “Then that’s a miracle.” I had a passionate zest for Key West life in all of its little details. I’m not sure why or where that came from, but I was so excited to be there.
Every time we (McGuane and Jimmy Buffett) get together, we’re reminded of what a moment in time that was. It’s not like we haven’t had other lives or haven’t loved the rest of our lives, but that was unbelievably special. It was kind of a free-fire zone, where you could figure out what you wanted to do. You were in a sympathetic culture to be an artist. It was a real chance to find out a lot in a short time in a small space.
About being an outsider in the literary world:
What that (election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters) did apprise me of — and I think this is true of any writer who lives in “flyover country” — is that the Northeastern establishment is not interested enough in what we do to closely examine what we’re up to.
With Gallatin Canyon (his 2006 story collection), six of those stories were in the New Yorker. It’s the only time in history that three stories back to back have been picked for the Best American Short Stories collection, but none were short-listed for a short-story award. In other countries, in England and Ireland and France, I’m short-listed.
That couldn’t happen to an Eastern writer. It just wouldn’t. Like anything else, they’re just interested in where they are.
I got a list of the geographical distribution of the (academy) membership, and that little Eastern corridor, which you can drive across in two hours, is 90 percent of the American membership. The Atlantic Coast to the Pacific Coast has 10 percent of the membership. That would qualify it more as a municipal organization.
On the critics genuflecting before him as Driving on the Rim gets published:
Chip McGrath (of the New York Times) was just here and he asked me, “What’s it like, being here for the long haul? Girls don’t have your picture on the refrigerator anymore.” It’s true that undergraduates don’t want to grow up to be me anymore. I never wanted to be a celebrity writer. I wanted to be a good writer. I’m still trying to be a good writer. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning.
Thoughts on Key West’s place in his life:
It’s great fishing, wonderful fishing. I go to the Keys every year to fish.
I’m thrilled it (his tumultuous life there) happened. I have a great marriage, based on Key West. It’s a well that I can go back to from time to time. It’s a well of unencumbered idealism. We thought we could re-create American society. Those hippie fantasies were still in place.
More and more, when I talk to people my own age, we consider ourselves old hippies, we’re glad we were hippies. We were glad to have the values we acquired while we were hippies. They’re still high quasireligious standards about how to live with other people.
On Elizabeth Ashley’s tell-all memoir of their affair:
Oh, yeah. (Laughs.) I haven’t read that.
On what’s ahead:
I’m very grateful for what I have. I’m old enough that I can mort out at any minute without any sense of regret at all. That’s not true. I might look back and think I wish I hadn’t been so selfish when my kids were smaller. But I’m not overwhelmed by regret.
When I have dinner with my family here in Montana, just my family, there’s 13 of us at the table. And I assure you, I am a minor figure.
This (above) was drawn from a much-longer interview I did with McGuane for my upcoming book Mile Marker Zero. This appeared originally in the St. Petersburg Times. The review of Driving on the Rim (below) appeared in the Boston Globe.
Tom McGuane fit the template perfectly. He lived in Key West, wrote novels about hunting and fishing and drinking and brawling, and sailed out to sea, hoping to catch the big one.
No writer was better positioned to be the New Hemingway than Thomas McGuane in the early 1970s.
McGuane lived that sprawling, Cinemascope life, along the way becoming a legendary boozer and the subject of tabloid fodder. But he avoided the demons that drove Ernest Hemingway to suicide at age 61.
McGuane is 70 now, in his fourth decade of sobriety and in the 32nd year of marriage – a significant achievement considering he had three wives in 18 months back in his tabloid days. He long ago left behind drugs and alcohol and the tropics for an isolated ranch in Montana, where he lives the happy-ending life he so rarely writes about.
As a novelist, McGuane has been prolific. Driving on the Rim, his excellent new book, is his ninth novel. He’s also published two short story collections, three non-fiction books and five produced screenplays.
But still, despite his considerable literary reputation and membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters, McGuane frets that people don’t understand him. The books are funny, so he wonders why more people aren’t laughing.
The confusion is understandable. There’s an awful lot of calamity in these books McGuane calls his comic novels.
Driving on the Rim shows McGuane at his best, expertly quilting together the sacred and the profane, the comic and the tragic.
McGuane tells the story in the voice of Irving Berlin Pickett (his mama named him for the composer of “God Bless America” ) and so from the start of his life, the joke appears to be on Berl. He’s born to vagabond rug cleaners who ignore their only child, rather than dote on him.
Berl grows up in Montana and McGuane writes lovingly of the land. Few writers have such a deft touch with language and Driving on the Rim should be read aloud and savored.
At first, living in Big Sky Country seems to matter little to Berl; he might as well be in Iowa. Gradually, he comes to realize that where he lives has defined who he has become.
And he’s become something of a mess. In his life, Berl plays the role of victim.
He staggers through adolescence and despite a strong oafish streak, has no trouble with women. His roguish aunt seduces him. The bawdy girl upstairs in his boarding house throws herself at him. The wife of an older gentleman latches on to him like a junebug on a willow branch.
All of these affairs end badly, but Berl perseveres and through dumb luck becomes the protégé of a local doctor. His parents provide him with prayer and nothing else. The local doctor takes him hunting and fishing and teaches him to love the land. Then, absent a child of his own, he supports Berl through medical school, though it’s not clear the young man is a good investment.
Up to this point in the book, the comedy is on sure footing. Even the disclaimer before the first chapter is funny.
But then as the misfortunes begin to accumulate, Berl’s life begins to unravel and the world goes mad. Tragedy threatens to strangle him and his good spirit. As he staggers away from another death and misunderstanding, he finds solitude and healing in the wilderness, but even that idyll is ruined when news of the 9-11 terrorist attacks finds him in a remote corner of the world. Nowhere, it seems, is he safe from life.
So maybe that’s the comic touch McGuane says people miss in his novels. No matter what we do, we can’t escape mortality. The joke’s on us.