“I have a theory which I want you to reveal in Kirkus,” says Tom McGuane, whose third short story collection, Crow Fair, is published this week (after 10 novels and three essay collections about fishing, moto-cross racing, and cutting horses). “Here’s my theory: Literary fiction should take from the National Basketball Association the idea of the shot clock.
“Once the person has the ball and starts dribbling, they have only so long to make a shot or they get penalized,” he explains. “This buzzer goes off—it’s like The Gong Show—if they’re still dribbling, if they haven’t done anything. I think the shot clock should be used in literary fiction. David Foster Wallace would not have bought this idea.”
McGuane makes the shot every time. His work is bawdy, lovely, hilarious, and terribly sad. But you can’t call it ponderous. McGuane says he grows weary with the current trend of giant novels. “Everything has to be longer,” he says. “Even if it’s around-the-house and in-the-yard domestic drama. I just can’t believe that’s necessary.”
“These days, McGuane’s writing could hardly be further from the showy, overwritten prose of his breakthrough novels like Ninety-two in the Shade,” Kirkus’ reviewer writes about Crow Fair. Indeed, the stories are both spare and complex, their narrators using straightforward language to break a reader’s heart. In the title story, a middle-aged man wonders, “Where had I been all my life? I had grown up under so many shadows they were spread over me like the leaves in a book.”
Later, left alone with his elderly mother, the same man relates, “I sat and watched Mother. There was nothing in her face, nothing like life, nothing except the rise and fall of her breathing. It felt safe, after so long, to ask her if she loved me. It was just the two of us. No reply. I didn’t expect one.”
McGuane acknowledges that his style has become “a bit plainer,” noting that he’s “been doing this job for a long time.” He knows what he’s trying to do, he says, and he’s happy to write with less “prevaricating and fiddling around.” McGuane references Chekov: “You see how quickly he can make a powerful point, and you feel kind of guilty about the buck-and-wing stuff.” He loves the work of David Means and Maile Meloy (a fellow Montanan), whom he calls “a star.”
“To me there are two big voyages in life,” says McGuane. “Trying to reach contentment and acceptance of the life you have and trying to understand your parents.” These themes are both reflected in Crow Fair. The stories often span an entire character’s life, allowing readers to see a narrator as a child and as a grown person looking back on his childhood (and interacting with elderly parents). In “Weight Watchers,” the narrator muses, “As an only child, I was the sole recipient of my parents’ malignant parenting…In a real crisis, my mother brought in our neighbor Zoe Constantine for consolation, unaware that Pop had been making the two-backed beast with Zoe since I was in fifth grade—which happened to be the same year that my mother superglued Dad to the toilet seat, so perhaps she had her suspicions.”
“Time is something I brood about,” says McGuane. “We’re now old guys. We think we’ve changed so much but in other ways—in some core ways—we really don’t change. I like to see what the world does to people over time, or guess what it might do over time. It’s one of the things that makes me write.”
Though McGuane says he tries to hold his “out of control” sense of humor at bay, the stories in Crow Fair are filled with devastating zingers, like this one from “The Good Samaritan”: “Telling people to relax is not as aggressive as shooting them, but it’s up there.” McGuane says his writing heroes—he names Gogol and Cervantes—have the ability to move readers, but are also “funny en route.”
For over 30 years, McGuane competed in cutting horses, an “anxiety-producing” sport. “Part of it’s athletic and part of it is cerebral…it’s very easy to get confused in the middle of the process and have moments of rapid indecision where you would really screw up,” he says. But when he wrote a profile of Buster Welch, “the greatest cutting horse rider of all time,” for Texas Monthly and asked him how he handled the moments before an event, Buster told him, “I try to think of absolutely nothing. I hear my name and I ride down toward the herd and my mind is just empty.”
“That’s not a bad way to write, either,” McGuane says. “Instead of getting into the life habit of thinking, ‘What am I going to write?’ just think, ‘I’m going to write. I’m just going to go there and write.’ ”
In other words, take the shot.
Amanda Eyre Ward’s new novel, The Same Sky, was published in January.