Crow Fair by Thomas McGuane

crow fairI have been on a reading spree recently with fiction written about the American West. Not Westerns, mind you, but books about the area now or in the fairly recent past.  I have read some debuts – Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson and Black River by S. M. Hulse come to mind, but I really haven’t read the old school writers – no Wallace Stegner or Norman MacLean.  I would have to say that Thomas McGuane is about as old school as anything I have read within the past year.

McGuane has been cranking out novels and short stories since the late 1960s, and has gotten a fair amount of acclaim for his writing (and notoriety for his earlier lifestyle, which he has toned down considerably).  As an early transplant to the ranch country of Montana, his work often uses the state as backdrop.

His newest is no exception.  Crow Fair is peopled with cheaters, idealists, miscreants, and middle class ne’er-do-wells.  Most of his protagonists (or anti-heroes, depending on how you look at them) are men, a maddening bunch of middle-aged loners (often) who either screw up their own lives or observe others around them suffer the same fate.  It’s often hard to gauge their reliability as narrators, of whether they are victims or perpetrators, or if they’re the epicenter of familial cosmic jokes.  There’s plenty of “What?!” as you read these stories.  Still, McGuane can write a convoluted tale and make it highly entertaining.

Included in this collection:  Weight Watchers”, in which a grown son observes the foibles of his old man when he comes, involuntarily, to stay for a while, “Motherlode”, where a young cattle inseminator receives an offer he doesn’t refuse from the oddest of sources, “The Good Samaritan” in which an unknown stranger hires on with an injured farm owner and helps him in more ways than he’d like, and the title story, a twisted tale of adult brothers, their sibling rivalry, and the unsettling truth about their saintly mother, now in the throes of dementia.  And there are many more.

I have a hard time placing exactly what it is, but there are echoes of Flannery O’Connor and yes, even Eudora Welty in the tone of these.  I even hear, in the pacing of these, a certain British writer of the early 20th century who poked fun at the mindset of Edwardian England.  To me, these stories evoke an almost “Saki meets the Big Sky Country” feel, and that’s not a slight to McGuane.

Click here for other titles the library has by Thomas McGuane.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

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