Forget Big Sky And Cowboys: 'Crow Fair' Is Set In An Unidealized Montana
"I think there's only one interesting story ... and that's struggle," says writer Thomas McGuane. Loners, outcasts and malcontents fill the pages of McGuane's latest book — a collection of short stories titled Crow Fair.There's a divorced dad who takes his young son out for an ill-fated day of ice fishing; A restless cattle breeder who takes a gamble on a more lucrative and dangerous line of works; A guy who abandons his blind grandmother by the side of a river to go get drunk, and chase after a corpse he's spotted floating by.
These "so-called unsavory" characters are "voiceless," he tells NPR's Melissa Block. "I try to find out what their view of the world would be by imagination — to sort of see how they see things. ... It wouldn't interest me very much to write a lot about contented people, successful people. That's I think for some other job, maybe sociology, not mine."
The stories are set in Montana, where McGuane has lived for decades — he bought a small ranch there after he sold his first novel The Sporting Club in the late 1960s. Along with his writing — McGuane raises cattle and cutting horses. He lives in a house built by homesteaders, along a river, outside the tiny town of McLeod.
"You know people so thoroughly," he says. "Where I live, for example, they know what time of the morning we usually turn the lights on. And it's a little socially claustrophobic that way — we all know a lot about each other. But for a writer, it's kind of a good thing."
On the west he writes about vs. the "chamber of commerce west"
I love the west and I wouldn't want to live anywhere else, but I've long been preoccupied that the west that I see every day has never emerged into the sort of chamber of commerce west. We have a kind of "official" west — that west of the big sky and cowboy movies and all sorts of things, but really mostly the people you see where I live are the same people you see where you live but for some reason they're considered to be beneath the attention of local artists. In fact, I'm kind of considered someone who's betraying the local view of things. They think I should write more like A.B. Guthrie [Jr., author of The Way West.]
On whether he is "puncturing" the idyllic myth of the west
It's not a matter of wanting to puncture something. It's really a matter of writing about the world that I actually know — and I've been there for nearly a half century so I have a pretty good database on what goes on around me. But when people talk about Montana, they're talking about a very small portion of it. They're not talking about the eastern two-thirds of the state where life is very tough. They're usually talking about the ski areas and the universities and things like that.
On how his writing has changed since his early works in the late 1960s
I think when I first started out I had a kind of an exuberance about language, comedy, narrative leaps that ... stopped just short of non sequiturs. And I'm much more cautious now. I look things over a little bit more carefully before leaping into them. ... I like writing that's a bit more direct because I hope the subjects are difficult enough that they supply all the indirection that I could possibly manage.
And I think living where I do among non-literary people I probably want to be able to write things that they could understand. I've always given the people who work down on the ranch, I've always given them books to read, and I've learned what they can't read and what they can read. And why they may be right about that. And maybe that's simplified my style a little better — not simplified it, but made it plainer.
"I'm a really a fanatical reviser and there comes a point where I have to declare a truce with the text or I'll keep fooling with it forever. ... If I went back and read my earlier books, I'd feel so frustrated that I couldn't rewrite them that I know not to look."
On whether he goes back to read his earlier books
No ... I never have, I've never looked at a page ... seriously. I'm a really a fanatical reviser and there comes a point where I have to declare a truce with the text or I'll keep fooling with it forever. And I think most of the stories in this book have been drafted at least eight or nine or 10 times. And if I went back and read my earlier books, I'd feel so frustrated that I couldn't rewrite them that I know not to look.
On how his sense of humor has shifted over the course of his career
I think probably the most over-the-top book language-wise was 92 in the Shade and I think I've looked at that. I think by my current standards I found it a little flamboyant. But it was kind of in fun, too. I think my comic sense was more lit up in those days than it is now. ... It was the '70s and all the people I knew were all still alive. My parents and my sister died ... very close together and after that I lost quite a bit of my sense of humor. Most of it I think has kind of come back, but I know there was a time when I didn't think things were funny anymore. I kind of think they're funny again.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.