In the latest from McGuane (Gallatin Canyon, 2007, etc.), the narrative voice is often very funny, but its skewed perspective comes at the expense of plot momentum and character development.
In the first sentence, the protagonist introduces himself as “Berl Pickett, Dr. Berl Pickett,” before proceeding to explain that his full name is “Irving Berlin Pickett,” his mother’s choice, where his father had wanted “Lefty Frizzell Pickett,” which, the narrator says, “would have been worse.” Though perhaps more appropriate, for the novel is like one long string of honky-tonk jukebox selections, offering various themes on love gone wrong or awry, sex as a substitute for love, love as a substitute for sex, and the ultimate question of whether friendship is a necessary component for love or the antithesis of romance. The narrator defines love as “that moronic oblivion that makes the world go round,” and explains that “the essence of romance (is an) indifference to truth.” Yet the small-town Montana doctor is less a cynic than a hopeless romantic, his life complicated by not only a series of inappropriate or misguided sexual liaisons but a couple of deaths that occur on his watch. He faces manslaughter charges in the one for which he insists he is innocent, an innocence tarnished by the guilt he feels in the other death, a complicity that no one suspects. There is also an airplane crash, which both results in another ill-fated romantic quest and provides thematic resonance with the references to 9/11 scattered here and there. If such summary sounds like a jumble, the narrator himself suggests that his account may be suspect, that “We had, between how I was perceived by my colleagues and the ways in which I saw myself, true cognitive dissonance,” and that “I started to look for signs of craziness in myself, and I found plenty.” Though the novelist has often balanced metaphysical depth with dark humor, here the balance seems off.
Major author, minor work.