By Michael Lindgren
Saturday, October 30, 2010; C03
DRIVING ON THE RIM
By Thomas McGuane
Knopf. 306 pp. $26.95
Berl Pickett, the feckless doctor, fisherman, lover and accused murderer who narrates Thomas McGuane's "Driving on the Rim," is a splendid addition to the gallery of semi-cracked eccentrics who populate the literature of the American West. Pickett is like a cowboy Candide, a man whose "great good fortune it was to spend the first part of my life as a nitwit." His ineptitude is integral to his appeal, and as a result he seems to attract women and trouble in equal measure. That McGuane is able to build a hugely amusing and even moving novel around such a resounding antihero is testament to the enduring charms of one of the odder careers in American letters.
The novel, McGuane's 10th, starts out with a pair of deaths: that of Tessa, an old flame of Pickett's who has fallen on hard times, and Cody, a wife-beating burnout. Pickett is at the scene of both deaths, and the shock waves from these paired demises drive the narrative in cunning and often unexpected ways. The other people who dominate Pickett's musings -- he has a flair for metaphysical introspection -- are his parents: His mother is a fanatically devout Holy Roller; his father is a World War II veteran whose civilian life exists in the shadow of his reveries on the mayhem of battle. To top it off, Pickett becomes entangled in a tempestuous sexual relationship with a glamorous bush pilot.
If this all sounds far-fetched and scattered, it is, but McGuane has a way of turning the improbabilities of his unlikely pilgrim's progress into strengths. With effortless accuracy he captures the peccadilloes of small-town life, wherein everyone knows too well everyone else's business. He sketches the supporting cast of often lunatic denizens with ribald humor and affection. The outdoor scenes are lyrical -- a fish becomes "a hard cold bar of silver, gasping on the stones" -- and the book's denouement, where Pickett makes peace with the phantoms who have shadowed him, achieves something close to hard-won grandeur.
A writer this shambling and episodic runs the risk of being dismissed as nothing more than a tall tale-teller yoked to a set of verbal tics, but McGuane's literary effects are much trickier to achieve than they seem. Long gone are the pyrotechnical and somewhat off-putting verbal displays that marked his kid-prodigy novels of the early '70s. Woozy countercultural philosophizing has been replaced by an old-timer's sense of fatalistic resignation. He can still uncork sentences full of cowboy poetry and beguiling rhythms, but beneath the jaunty tone and skewed plotting now runs a strong streak of melancholy and an offhand yet persistent moral fervor.
"Driving on the Rim" is, in the end, a book about death and redemption. Pickett observes that "in suspending the rules of humanity for the convenience of emotion we gave way to wickedness." Despite having the agnosticism typical of physicians, he repeatedly comes up with such sin-haunted formulations. McGuane is not, of course, the first American male writer to frame his spirituality in terms of the beauty of the wilderness -- Pickett acknowledges that his "association of church and fishing [is] admittedly unoriginal" -- but there is something calm and unabashed about the expressions of serenity that gradually come to suffuse the book. At one point, Pickett observes that "of all the mysteries of life, nothing was more mysterious than the return of happiness. I was willing to wait." That he is, and by the end of "Driving on the Rim" it feels like the sweetest of benedictions.
Lindgren is a writer and musician who lives in Manhattan.