Of the many illusions Americans cling to about the Rocky Mountain West, one of the more enduring is that the strife between men and women now so common in the nation’s overcivilized precincts hasn’t yet shown its face there. Up in Big Sky country, we fondly imagine, everybody knows exactly who and what they are: Men are still men and women are happy rustling up the grub and barrel racing.
Not so, as readers of Tom McGuane’s recent novels (To Skin a Cat, Keep the Change) realize. Somewhat to the dismay of critics who once praised him as his generation’s Hemingway, McGuane, 52, has devoted much of his literary career to a series of domestic tragicomedies set against a landscape that inspires his characters to awe even as it mocks their emotional ineptitude and isolation. Like several of his previous novels, Nothing But Blue Skies is set in the fictional city of Deadrock, Mont. — a place that resembles the real-life town of Livingston, where the native Michigander set up shop as a writer and rancher some years back after a series of highly-publicized domestic misadventures of his own.
Protagonist Frank Copenhaver is a case study in the perils of living ironically. A onetime hippie whose father spurned him as a gutless wastrel shortly before vanishing into ”the refrigerated shadows of death,” Frank eventually drifted back to Deadrock more or less for lack of a calling in life, only to discover in himself a surprising aptitude for making money. Whether it’s the contracting business, feeder cattle, adjustable-rate mortgages, or a chain of ministorage outlets, almost everything the ex-hippie touches turns to gold. That he doesn’t much believe in what he’s doing only seems to make him better at it. ”Press forward, he thought. Buy things, then sell them. Try to make a profit. Embed yourself in the robust flux, the brushfire of commerce.”
Then Frank’s wife, Gracie, surprises him by running off with an anthropologist she’d been meeting while allegedly learning to fly-fish, and what Frank calls ”fiscal narcosis,” suddenly won’t suffice anymore. ”The normal, pleasant prevarications of daily life,” he finds, ”were becoming unbearable.” He begins to do peculiar things, playing Peeping Tom with his wife’s best friend and creeping about suburban neighborhoods at night spying upon mundane domestic scenes, as if to recapture what he has lost. He embarks upon several picaresque follies involving a sharply drawn series of comic characters: fistfights with cowboys, ill-advised fornications, and escapades with barnyard animals. Not surprisingly, Frank’s business empire begins to falter; his banker, accountant, and insurance man grow alarmed.
”If we didn’t have trout fishing,” the hero’s pal observes, ”there’d be nothing you could really call pure in our lives at all.” Ah, but they do. As always, it’s a topic that shows the ”Big Two-Hearted River” side of McGuane to great advantage. Nobody alive can write about fishing half so lyrically or so accurately.
Blue Skies is a far from perfect novel. Storytelling in the larger sense has never been one of McGuane’s strengths, mostly because narrative is less interesting to him than the lives of his protagonists — confidence men who playact their way through life, making it up as they go along, and trying to make it do. Strangers in town, even the towns they were born in. All-American boys. A-