Seventeen stories, straightforward but well-crafted, that cement McGuane’s reputation as the finest short story writer of Big Sky country—and, at his best, beyond.
These days, McGuane’s writing could hardly be further from the showy, overwritten prose of his breakthrough novels like Ninety-two in the Shade (1973). His sense of humor remains, but it’s wiser, more fatalistic and more Twain-like; he writes beautifully about the wilderness but always with an eye on its destructive power. As with much of his recent fiction, most of the stories here are set in Montana and turn on relationships going bust. In “Hubcaps,” a young boy observes his parents’ breakup through the filter of baseball and football games, capturing the protagonist’s slowly emerging resentment; in “Lake Story,” a man’s long-running affair with a married woman collapses during an ill-advised public outing, exposing the thinness of the connections that united them; in “Canyon Ferry,” a divorced dad’s attempt to prove his intrepidness to his young son during an ice-fishing trip pushes them to the edge of disaster during a storm. One of the best stories in the collection, “River Camp,” displays McGuane’s skill at pairing emotional turmoil with the untamed outdoors, following two brothers-in-law whose attempt to get away from it all leads them to a tour guide of questionable mental stability, bears rustling through tents and plenty of exposed raw nerves about their marriages. “Stars” tells a similar story in a more interior mode, following an astronomer who increasingly fails to contain her anger at the workaday world—McGuane skillfully depicts the small but constant ways life goes off-plumb for her—and how she fumbles toward balance in the forest. The conflicts throughout this book are age-old—indeed, the title story evokes “Oedipus”—but McGuane’s clean writing and psychological acuity enliven them all.
A slyly cutting batch of tales from a contemporary master.