Gallatin Canyon, by Thomas McGuane

Cowboys and corpses: down and out on the road to El Dorado
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The Independent Culture

Although there are hucksters, dreamers and long-shot dice rollers sprinkled up and down the Eastern Seaboard, people who really want a fresh start in America go West. For the past 37 years, Thomas McGuane has been showing how, like a siren song, this mythology operates. The heroes of his latest collection of stories hear this song.

"Vicious Circle" tells the tale of a middle-aged man who picks up a younger woman at a farmers' market and winds up with more than he bargained for. In "Old Friends", a lawyer's college roommate turns up with the law at his heels. He briefly shelters the man - then realises he's way too old for such shenanigans.

Although each story shows McGuane's lean muscularity and deep cadences, there is a pleasing variety of perspectives. "Cowboy" unfolds in the voice of a dude working on a ranch owned by a chain-smoking brother and sister: "So they joined a Smoke-Enders deal the Lutherans had, and this required 'em to put all their butts in a jar and wear the jar around their neck on a string. The old sumbitch liked this okay because he could just tap his ash right under his chin."

Like Annie Proulx, McGuane has found a way to paint simple, hard-working people without his slapstick ever becoming condescending. Through them, he registers his irritation with changes in the Montana landscape. In "Aliens", a 75-year-old lawyer indulges a lifelong dream and returns to live in the West, only to discover that "Montana seemed like a place he had once read about in a dentist's office".

The title story includes a long riff about the way tourists have made the place dangerous: "This combination of cumbersome commercial traffic and impatient private cars was a lethal mixture that kept our canyon in the papers, as it regularly spat out corpses." In a traffic jam with "no passing lane for several miles... A single amorous elk could have turned us all into twisted, smoking metal." That "amorous elk" is pure McGuane - comedy at the nexus of human folly and the natural world.

This folly can be deadly. In "North Coast", two heroin users track down an Indian relic in the Pacific Northwest, risking being mauled by a bear to get the money for drugs. McGuane's impertinently brave hero "saw the moving furrow in the bushes, but an encounter never came". This luck, as these stories powerfully remind us, eventually runs out.