BOOK REVIEW / When Boyd met Smokie: 'Nothing But Blue Skies' - Thomas McGuane: Secker & Warburg, 14.99

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The Independent Culture
THE hero of Thomas McGuane's new novel has the eye of a zoom lens. One minute he's gazing into the big blue horizon, the next he's peering through his neighbours' windows: taking a peek at fathers sipping coffee; children doing homework; women undressing by the light of a television set. He has a practical motive: he's forgotten how to lead his own life and is looking for answers. But the shifts in perspective also sum up the ambitions of this tough, funny and oddly spiritual book. Nothing But Blue Skies spends its time burrowing around in small incidental details - toothpaste dispensers, mileage tables, Hershey Kisses - but there is, all the while, a sense of something bigger going on.

To a certain extent big means male. McGuane is what is now known as a 'Montana Writer' (as opposed to a writer who lives in Montana) and is acclaimed, like Jim Harrison or Richard Ford, for endowing the landscape of the West with a pastoral masculinity. Places always breathe deeply in McGuane's books and when they are the size of his native Montana (roughly equal to Germany) their rhythm enters ordinary lives. It's a male landscape and a man's world. In Nothing But Blue Skies, civilisation is just one step from nature - Deadrock, Cat Creek, White Sulphur Springs. The men have barked-out names like Phil and Dick and Boyd (the only two- syllaber, Edward, is an out-of- towner and a wife-stealer at that) while women trail willowy diminutives: Holly, Gracie, Joanie, even - appallingly - Smokie.

These characters have ranches and 'old home places' and don't drive cars so much as Dodges, half-ton black Chevys and three- quarter-ton Fords with stock racks. It doesn't even come as much of a surprise when the plot crashes headlong into an articulated log skidder complete with hydraulic forklift. It's just the way things are around here.

And against all this is Frank Copenhaver who, like Joe Starling, the hero of McGuane's last novel Keep the Change, is a loner, an observer, a worrier. He begins the novel talking about the Nikkei stock index and 'tax-deferred variable annuities' but, after the departure of his wife, is soon skipping work to search for his bearings. Much of the book is engaged with his antics - sexual encounters, bar brawls, light rubs with the law - boy's own adventures careering out of control. It's often hilarious (take the skirmish in the carwash), but sometimes you wish he'd leave off. At one point, Frank meets a woman swimming in the middle of a lake and smells a whiff of cough drop. When they kiss in his hotel room, she slips one into his mouth - 'like a cool breeze' - an oddly poignant moment that fuses both the sensuality and ordinariness that Frank craves. It should have been left at that. But McGuane can't resist chasing it up with some stagey business involving oral sex ('That cough drop has set me on fire she hollered'). Boys will be boys. . . .

Frank himself is endearing mainly because he seems so bemused by the 'crazy juxtapositions, cartoons or exaggerations' of his own behaviour - there's a fine ironic distance for much of the book in which you're aware that he's drunk or that his business is going down the tube, but the narration doesn't seem to notice. For one thing, its eyes are on other people. McGuane is strong on gesture and mannerism - how short men converse to tall, say ('he bent back from the waist to talk rather than bend his head at the neck'). The hero, too, is always looking, even at the airport - 'He hunted around for a tearful goodbye and found one'.

It all comes back to Frank's crisis of personality. He's lost, and McGuane cleverly conveys this in the loops of the prose. He uses an odd language that shifts between registers. One minute it's making colloquial references to 'the old trouser worm' and a character 'hosing' another's wife ('slow down, hoss, he said to himself, whoa-up now, big fella'); the next it's swooping drunkenly: 'Wave to those people] They didn't wave back] We don't care] Ha, ha] More waving. . .' Sometimes it is just clear and simple: 'They stopped at the edge and gazed upon the deep silky current. A pair of kingbirds fought noisily across the stream.' It's a prose alive with images of modern life and the great outdoors.

The great outdoors, the big open sky, is the real protagonist, after all. Throughout the book, it slips into the most unexpected places, whether in reference to Frank's career ('up in the blue') or ejaculation ('into the wild blue yonder'), or confusion ('his head was full of clouds'). In Montana, however big you think you are, there's always something bigger.

Extract

Frank answered an ad promising travel and went to work for a crew that drifted around the country wrecking old homes and hauling the doors, chandeliers, windows and hardware back to Los Angeles for use in houses that duplicated other periods. They even demolished a few houses in Montana. Frank thought of getting home but the brute work of making sure the booty made it to the West Coast was all-consuming. The billiard table of a Butte mining baron ended up as a striking salad bar in Van Nuys, and numerous farm wagons and buckboards met a similar fate in steak joints, shrimp joints, king crab joints. Frank had felt a subtle change of character as he took on the world of atmosphere, as a thing unto itself. It was interesting to try to produce atmosphere directly, without tediously waiting for human life to create it.

Frank rose up in this work and became an independent contractor. His work had a look. If a chili chain wanted ambience, Frank went to the border and returned with wetback cafes loaded on tractor-trailer rigs. By the time the Cajun mania hit, Frank already was deep into Louisiana and in fact had inventoried the lower Mississippi, all the way to Plaquemines Parish, for an earlier gumbo empire that had stretched from Ventura to

Redding before falling of its own weight and turning back into gas stations.

It was in the minute town of Chalou, Louisiana, on the crumbling riverbend steps of a fallen- down indigo plantation house, that he met Gracie. She looked a little bit like an Indian. She was brown-eyed, black-haired, five- four and carried a two-barrelled shotgun with big mule-ear hammers and a white ivory bead for a sight. He knew right then he had totalled his last heirloom.

(Photograph omitted)

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