HOW MANY of us are still mooning over the perfect lover who got away? Why do we do it? "An old flame that never dies is like those overbuilt goddamn English shoes rich ladies used to wear," says Emily, the homicidal siren who haunts the protagonist of Something To Be Desired. "The illusion of everlasting life. That's what came with them. You buy a pair of those beauties when you get out of Miss Whozit's, and forty years later they haul you to the boneyard in the same brown shoes with the shiny eyelets."
Something To Be Desired, McGuane's eighth novel, is a painful and oddly indeterminate book. After bedding Emily in college, Lucien finds that nothing else seems worth concentrating on. When Emily murders her husband years later, he dump his diplomatic career, his beautiful wife Suzanne and their son James and hastens home to get her out of jail. When Emily jumps bail, Lucien is left with title to her ranch, an unappeasable thirst and degenerate personal habits. He turns the ranch into a ritzy hot-spring spa, drinks virtually anything in bottles and sets a new depth level for Montana low life.
McGuane is, as always, witty and confident as he evokes the squalor of too much sex and too little feeling, and Lucien has a kind of seedy charm. He likes to frolic in the muddy spring:
"Grunting and floundering while all one's own limbs made sucking noises was, Lucien felt, a real icebreaker with the more timid gals. . . . In April he had a close call when a brunette passed out in the mud and sank from sight. He had to probe for her with a stout pole to make the rescue, then load her to town with only her eyes showing: he had been afraid to let her rinse in the bottomless hot spring, for fearof not seeing her again."
Lucien's not a bad guy, he just has a short attention span. "Lucien loved his little boy very much, but with the distraction that informed all his own young life." He's distracted from Suzanne, too, by his memories of Emily. No other woman can quite replace her. "What do you take me for, a kleenex?" asks one of his lovers when he can't come up with her name. But because Lucien can't focus, the reader doesn't learn much about Suzanne or James or for that matter, even the seductive, murderous Emily, who's the kind of woman I'd like to observe intensely from a safe distance.
AND I HAD a problem -- which I didn't have with his earlier books -- with McGuane's elliptical, epigrammatic narrative style. He can vault across a decade in a paragraph, or sum up a character in an impromptu proverb. Sometimes this effect strikes home ("if dismounting were given the same importance in sex as it is in horsemanship, this would be a happier world.") and sometimes it misses:
"In years to come, Lucien's career, time and childbirth would tighten their grip on Suzanne's life. She became tough and smart and she stayed beautiful. Lucien remained distracted, effective mostly in bursts of irritation. He made dreadful paintings. Later it would not surprise her when he left. But he went on explaining by phone and by mail. He fell apart. Not unkindly, she began to refer to him as a plastered saint. For Suzanne, as for all those who start out on sound principles, life went on."
McGuane certainly deserves credit for trying -- against the trend of fictional fashion -- to write about the problems of men, and men who aren't writers or artists at that. But perhaps the problem is just what Emily suggested: We're all getting older, and the habits that served us in youth are getting a little grimy as the years wear on. In books like Ninety-two in the Shade, McGuane was describing the inarticulate, almost offhand passions of young men. But as they age, his heroes need to pick up some wisdom, some kindness and something to say for themselves. That means bidding farewell to the insouciance and the obsessions of youth. Lucien can't. "Is it all that terrible that I've gone on having these feelings?" he asks Emily. "Not everyone has such a happy view of his own past."
We all know men like Lucien; but to be frank, I think their problems are getting a little old, at least in novelistic terms. Characters like Lucien -- inarticulate, charming, inwardly decent, outwardly passive -- have become clich,es. I wanted Lucien to surprise me -- to show some reserve of courage or gumption or even wickedness that would set him off from the dozens of other men like him I have read about. He didn't come through for Suzanne or me.