NOBODY'S ANGEL brings Thomas McGuane, abruptly and prematurely, to the end of the line. Only a few years ago he seemed to have as bright a future as any young American writer. His first novel, The Sporting Club, had been published in 1969 to general and justifiable applause. His second, The Bushwhacked Piano, won the 1972 Rosenthal Award for fiction. His third, Ninety-Two in the Shade, was a nominee and a serious contender for a National Book Award.
All three of these novels were the work of a writer with a vivid, idiosyncratic style and outlook. The central character in each of them was a young man who had been raised in privileged surroundings but had rejected materialism in favor of a closer relationship with the natural world, especially as expressed in sport. All three novels voiced sharp contempt toward what McGuane saw as America's "declining snivelization." All three had a rich, bawdy humor and a strong undercurrent of anger: "They watched a Lake Erie sunset together; a bleached and watery sun eased itself down on the horizon and broke like a blister, seeping red light over the poison lake. They could count the seven stacks of the Edison Electric Company. They smelled with affection the effluents of Wyandotte Chemical. They slept in one another's arms on the colloidal, slightly radioactive swell."
That passage is from The Bushwhacked Piano, which I described in a review as the work of a writer possessing "a talent of Faulknerian potential," one whose "sheer writing skill is nothing short of amazing." Two years later I wrote of Ninety-Two in the Shade: "The satire is still there, and the mordant view of American vulgarity, and the fierce anger over despoliation of the land and water, but here McGuane is far more compassionate and understanding toward his characters." I called his prose "vivid, ironic, filled with surprising and revealing insights."
I quote from these reviews not out of any pride of authorship--quite to the contrary--but to recall the high praise with which McGuane's work was greeted in his salad days. To younger reviewers and readers, he was one of the most prominent and promising of a new generation of writers: one willing to cast a cold and critical eye at American excesses and follies, one with a piercingly unsentimental appreciation of American vulgarity. Either we did not notice, or were willing to overlook, a strong strain of condescension, snobbery and self-aggrandizement in his work.
Then McGuane went to the movies. He took over direction of the film of Ninety-Two in the Shade, a movie that quickly turned sour. His personal life took several flamboyant and melodramatic turns, all of them reported in the gossip columns. If he wrote any fiction in the mid-'70s, I am unaware of it. The film of Ninety- Two in the Shade was a complete disaster, as were virtually all of his subsequent ventures in the medium. He became more noted as a celebrity, even if a third-string one, than as a writer.
None of which should be pertinent to a book review except that McGuane, like his hero Hemingway, had by this point made himself of as much consequence as his books. That was made embarrassingly clear in Panama, a short apologia pro vita sua in the form of a novel that was published in 1978. It was a drearily self-indulgent little book, a contemplation of the price of celebrity that was, in point of fact, merely an exploitation of the author's new notoriety.
Nobody's Angel is more of the same: a book that can be of no conceivable interest to anyone except those who still, for whatever reason, remain his admirers. Its publication has been preceded by a small barrage of magazine articles and publicity, the effect of which apparently is supposed to be that McGuane has, at his ranch in Montana, found a new peace and his old skills. If he has indeed discovered the former, more power to him; but there is no evidence in Nobody's Angel that he has retrieved the latter.
It is the story of Patrick Fitzpatrick, 36 years old, "a fourth-generation cowboy outsider, an educated man, a whiskey addict and until recently a professional soldier." He has left the service and returned to the family ranch on the outskirts of the small Montana settlement of Deadlock:
"As he had just left the Army and was not yet used to being home, he was rather like someone out of stir, trying to establish a pattern in a new world. . . . He was tall, single, had lost his father and looked after a grandfather who now drank too much. Patrick drank a little too much."
In fairly rapid order, Patrick gets into a contretemps with the editor of the local newspaper, which gives McGuane a chance to take a shot at his critics in the press by noting that people are "not out there just as cannon fodder for boys with newspapers." Then he becomes involved with a wealthy couple, Tio and Claire; when he and Claire begin an affair, he is forced to confront questions about love and emotional commitment, and to risk the vengeance of the quietly berserk Tio.
The action is interrupted over and again by windy philosophizing and pontificating. Nobody's Angel is a talky, self-important novel in which much is made of very little. At one point Patrick thinks: "I've been through quite an experience, perhaps the number one Man-Versus-Animal deal for many years here in the Rockies. But I better get myself under control before it's lights out. God has made greater things to test us than ill-tempered sled dogs; God has made us each other." If that's not deep enough for you, try this: "Both Patrick's desire for privacy and his mistakes in human judgment sprang from the same vague feeling that things were very sad."
This is McGuane's new persona, the one we first encountered in Panama. The strutting, swaggering man about saloons has been displaced by a rueful, edgy, death-haunted man of tender emotions--macho's answer to the whore with a heart of gold. A decade ago McGuane wanted us to see how tough and sarcastic and knowing he was; now he wants us to see his soft and vulnerable side. But in either case, in the world according to Thomas McGuane, the beginning and the end are-- you guessed it--Thomas McGuane.
Who, in turn, increasingly sounds like a Hemingway clone: "Angled on the corner of Big Horn and Main was the Part-Time Bar, where Patrick went to have a George Dickel and water as a way of staking the place out for his grandfather. The Part-Time was an old-timers' favorite, and the homemade soup there took a little of the edge off the binges, as well as sustained anyone hungry in search of company. This hunger struck at all hours." Like Papa, he is acquainted with the good and the true and the natural: "It was an excellent cold spring and Patrick liked everything about it." And he knows the rules: "He recalled the advice of the master chef Paul Bocuse: Shop first, then decide what you're going to make; attend to the seasons--no strawberries for Christmas dinner, no game for Easter." And serve no wine before its time.
This is adolescent self-absorption, pure and simple. For whatever reason, McGuane's view does not extend beyond the range of his own experience and fantasies. When he does reach past himself, his view of the rest of the world is arrogant and condescending. His prose has lost his precison and his sense of humor has vanished. Literature is the loser, I suppose, but I have no further interest in the case.