A writer renowned for his evocation of the wide-open spaces of the American West (his native Montana in particular) here explores a rewarding range of both geographical and thematic terrain within his second collection (after Nothing But Blue Skies, 1992).
Throughout these ten stories of place and displacement by novelist McGuane (The Cadence of Grass, 2002, etc.), geography forges character and character shapes destiny. It’s a reflection of his consummate command that his fiction can be simultaneously so funny and so bleak. Whether he’s writing in the first or third person (with both narrative approaches prevalent here), his characters contend with minor frustrations and everyday absurdities within lives that just might be pointless, inconsequential beneath the big sky. His settings extend from the West to New England (in both “Aliens” and the concluding title story, the culture clash between Montana and Boston proves crucial) and from the Great Lakes to Key West. As the collection’s penultimate story, “The Refugee” is the longest (comprising more than a quarter of the volume’s pages) and perhaps the most ambitious, reflecting the mind of a suicidal alcoholic who tries to find some semblance of stability on the sea, attempts to come to terms with his role in the death of a friend who had betrayed him (was it an accident or murder?) and ultimately finds himself both marooned and returned to some sort of Eden. Among the other standouts, “Miracle Boy” conjures the slapstick of mourning within the mysteries of family; “Old Friends” details the inertia of the relationship between life-long friends who have never really liked each other; “Ice” finds a man reminiscing about his Midwestern boyhood, in a coming-of-age story that stirs sexual awakening and intimations of mortality; and the darkly comic “The Zombie” relates the tale of a banker’s son determined to retain his virginity and the escort hired by his father to seduce him.
Wherever these stories take the reader, the tone is quintessential McGuane.