WHERE do young American literary lions go these days if they want to be mythologised for their boozing and philandering as well as admired for their fine words? Forget Montparnasse and Pamplona. The answer is Missoula, Montana, a place where men still dare to be men and where women who can’t take the heat still get out of the kitchen.
There is a gang of writers associated with Missoula, among them Richard Ford, Jim Harrison, Rick Bass, William Hjortsberg, Tim Cahill, James Crumley, the late Richard Brautigan. The house style is taut and tough: down-home plainness, repressed violence, ‘American vernacular’. The main characters are men of alarming actions but few words who exude a strong sense of place: wide-open spaces, barely-moving clouds, altitude, dryness, distance. A mere two lines of dialogue and you know you’re in a diner 50 miles from Wyoming.
The style may be clipped, but the anecdotes surrounding the Missoula school are florid, even preposterous. These writers, it’s said, go on three-year benders. They don’t just like rifles, they like to do target practice in their sitting rooms. If a Hollywood studio puts them up in a hotel, their bar bill after two weeks is never less than dollars 75,000. And when they say they’re going out for 18 holes, that means stocking up a golf cart with beer and cocaine. A friend of mine remembers one of their parties: ‘There were 16 of us, and only four beds. One man was telling another the sad story of his life. His punchline, round dawn, was: ‘And then for some reason, my fifth wife went sullen on me’.’
The founding father of this iniquitous community? Legend attributes this honour to Thomas McGuane, author of such cult classics as Ninety-Two in the Shade, The Sporting Club and The Bushwacked Piano, whose heroes may be soft-hearted, reflective and saddened by excess, but who are more renowned for their he-man sporting and shooting exploits, their womanising, their binges and their drug habits. Because of his sideline in screenwriting (credits include Missouri Breaks and Rancho Deluxe), McGuane is accused of having ‘brought Hollywood to Montana’ as well as renewing its interest in his other haunt, Key West.
In a recent Vanity Fair, James Wolcott unkindly called McGuane ‘Hemingway with styling mousse’ and backhandedly praised his new novel, Nothing But Blue Skies, for having ‘pioneered a whole new genre: the fishing and fucking novel’. And the real-life Tom McGuane? At his London hotel this week, I found him to be affable, courteous, gently-
spoken, dressed in a nice, sober, grey tweed jacket: there is not a hint of the redneck style affected by many of his disciples.
Other myths topple at once. He isn’t even a Westerner: his Irish-American immigrant family settled in Michigan, where he was born and educated. After getting his degree at Michigan State, he went to Yale drama school and then to California for a stint at Stanford before settling in Montana. He started his first novel when he was ‘up against it, I was really broke, I had a wife and a child and I had to do something and so I just sat down and wrote it’. It became The Sporting Club and ‘was quite successful, it sold to the movies’. So began his fabled association with Hollywood. He describes writing screenplays in words most people reserve for volleyball: ‘The key is: don’t let thought interfere with the process. It’s all in the wrists. I did it from 1972 until about 1978, but I just never had my heart in it.’
And the boozing I had heard so much about? He hasn’t had a drink in 13 years: ‘I realised I was letting drinking become a very important part of my life, and so I quit. I find it takes ungodly hours and an incredibly healthy way of life to write.’ He does admit to happy memories of Key West: ‘I used to go there with my father, and when I made some money I bought a little place I called my urban fishcamp. In the Sixties and Seventies it was a great place, especially if you were on drugs.’
I ask him about his association with various screen queens: ‘After my first marriage, I was married to an actress (Margot Kidder), for about six months: it’s the only one that makes the press. My wife Laurie and I, we’ve been married for 16 years but she never gets a mention. It drives her crazy: it makes her feel like a Soviet non-person.’ Their life together, he says, has mostly been concerned with child- rearing: ‘She had a child by a previous marriage, I had two, and we’ve had one together. There may be harder things than having stepchildren – trying to get out of a burning house, for instance. But maybe not even that. It’s the ultimate test: you find out all the things that are wrong about yourself.’
McGuane’s life on his Montana ranch sounds disconcertingly ordinary. His only forays out of state seem to be book tours, about which he remains perplexed even after years of being ‘semi-established’: ‘There’s the real world and then there’s the media world, and every three years I get on this little ladder and visit that other world – it’s like the attic.’ Doggedly I query him about his friendships with various infamous male writers, almost all called Jim or Bill or Rick. ‘We don’t keep in touch,’ he says. ‘And I don’t hang out.’ There is a gang in Missoula, certainly, but Missoula is a good 300 miles from his ranch: ‘People tend to forget that Montana is about the size of Germany. Sixty per cent of the residents are from elsewhere, so we’re still going through a settlement period. If you’ve any dedication to a cause, Montana is a great place to be. I’m very active in Montana libraries, and Indian reservation stuff, and working for hungry people. I feel a kind of umbilical connection to my immediate society.’
Who does he begin to sound like? Frank Copenhaver, hero of Nothing but Blue Skies, who is abandoned by his wife for reasons he doesn’t understand and who goes into freefall. Although Frank does lots of fishing and drinking and is surrounded by women who are perfectly happy to go to bed with him, he finds independence less than satisfying. And although he gets into arguments and bar brawls, you can almost hear the author’s New Man conscience hovering over him. ‘I don’t want to hire any more cowboys,’ Frank says, ‘they’re all . . . drunken, wife-beating, snoose-chewing geeks with big belt buckles and catfish mustaches. They spend all their time reading about themselves. College professors drive out and tell them they’re a dying breed. I hate them.’ Frank is also perplexed by what he calls the ‘great white whale of a subject that buried everyone just now, the deep distaste men and women had for each other of late’.
‘I’m a typical male, Fifties model,’ says McGuane, ‘and I was glad when I heard that my three daughters were changing the rules. But I think if anything they’ve lost ground. They don’t have any day-to-day apparatus for dealing with real-life men. They’re always going off on blind romances. My wife and I call it ‘shits passing in the night’.
‘If you’re a middle-aged, middle-class, middle-western white male today, it’s like fighting with one arm tied behind you. The new political correctness has produced an inquisitorial atmosphere: it’s the conformists versus the individualists again. One consolation about middle age is that you see all fads get the bum’s rush. Most people like to throw themselves into the blender and get pureed. Artists are there to show how to stay out of the blender.’
Replace the word ‘artist’ with ‘regular guys’, and you get the theme of McGuane’s novel. It is, he thinks, his final statement about the world from that ‘edgeless generation’ of ageing hippies: ‘You end up investing so much of yourself in the hero, but to tell you the truth I’m getting bored of myself. I think next time I’ll try something different, write something in a passive voice. That might be fun. It might begin: ‘Gary was seen to appear in the door.’ ‘
‘Nothing But Blue Skies’ is published this week by Secker ( pounds 16.99) and Minerva ( pounds 4.99).
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