I recall with a certain fondness a summer evening long ago at the Bennington Summer Writing Workshops, when Montana resident Richard Ford opened a reading from the work of Montana writer William Kittredge by saying, "Well, it's Montana Night at the workshops, and it's just like Montana. Hours will go by, and all you will see are two people."
Montana's gotten a lot more populated since then, at least its fiction has, thanks in large part to the short stories of another Montana writer, the highly regarded Thomas McGuane. His third collection, Crow Fair, gives us a large cast of Big Sky country folks — some born there, some drifting through, many of them just as memorable as the characters in McGuane's longer fiction. And most of them on their way down rather than up.
Clay is a used car salesman and the son of one of the last of the old native ranchers. In "A Long View to the West," he watches his deteriorating father suffer discomfort, and then distress, and McGuane reports it with an anguish that freights nearly every line with both pathos and wisdom. The title refers to the siting of the funeral plot Clay and his sister buy towards the end of the story. That purchase made, Clay returns with a heavy heart to pay a surprise visit to his father.
"What're you doing?" he says to the old man.
"Dying," says his father. "What's it look like?"
Clay doesn't know how to respond, managing only, "And you're okay with that?" "How should I know," his father shoots back. "I've never done it before."
McGuane himself has written scenes like this before. For decades, his novels have had a sharp-edged tone and an eye for darkly comic moments in human relations. These recent stories show off a more mature, more clinical — which is to say, more detached — view of his characters, which still allows the reader to feel pain and shame for almost every figure he introduces. I suppose I want to say that McGuane has both honed the edge of his already sharp tone and, paradoxically, become more sympathetic to the human condition as embodied by his mostly-male narrators.
Elsewhere in the book, a contractor, a dedicated bachelor, suffers childhood angst while caring for his dad, a philandering fellow cast out of his marriage bed and house by his angry wife. A young fellow with a lot of time on his hands — and alcohol in his sytem — takes his blind but mentally acute grandmother on a picnic near a river, only to see a corpse float past them. He leaves the old woman alone while he goes to report the sighting, with odd consequences. And in the title story, two brothers discover their dying mother's poignant emotional legacy.
Other stories tell of pizza and adultery, western scammers and dreamers and schemers on the make, a young woman from a local brothel rising in society to take over the local bank, an ill-fated fishing expedition populated by two old friends with a long-simmering gripe between them and a guide who may be insane. Though there are no stories here from a woman's perspective, McGuane nevertheless gives us well-rounded women alongside the men, making for a rich and fascinating portrait of Montana — with hungry bears and fighting trout as wonderful extras.
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