Sunday, November 30, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #334: The Bushwhacked Piano by Thomas McGuane

In literary fiction, there's a strong tradition of the magnificent asshole: the guy so charismatic and interesting that the reader mostly ignores that he's an absolutely horrible human being. Think Randle McMurphy, Horse Badorties, Ignatius Reilly -- for the length of a book we're on his side as he battles regular society, or the Man, or just whatever happens to be in the way, even if we'd go out of our way to avoid anyone half that annoying in regular life. [1]

The trend was most pronounced in the twentieth century -- Faulker had a couple of doozies, and Kerouac rarely wrote about anything but -- though there had been similar characters back at least as far as Prince Hal and Falstaff. The essential version, though, is usually post-modern, and placed in solid opposition to the world of squares and three-piece suits and 9-to-5 jobs and all the usual things to rebel against. Sometimes he wins, sometimes he loses, and sometimes it's not clear what happened -- the important things are that he's magnificent, he's an asshole, and that he fights.

Nicholas Payne is a fine member of that august company: he's larger than life, utterly insufferable, and any reader's enjoyment of the book he dominates will be entirely determined by the ability to stomach this self-important prick. To be honest, it took me a while to warm to him -- I was expecting something very different from Payne's author, Thomas McGuane, who I'd pigeonholed as a writer of rural semi-humorous he-man stories, like a somewhat more domesticated Hemingway who stuck closer to Michigan. That pigeonhole was based entirely on supposition and inference, though, and it just shows how badly expectations can go wrong -- I'd had the completely wrong image of this writer in my head for a good thirty years.

Payne louchely saunters through the American landscape of about 1969-1970 in McGuane's second novel, The Bushwhacked Piano -- the title comes from the first page, where he shoots a neighbor's piano at the age of ten or so, nearly twenty years before the action of the novel. He pursues the local beauty, Ann Fitzgerald; he works on a one-armed man's ill-conceived plan to build large bat-houses all across the country to eliminate mosquitoes; he ruminates on cars and hunting and fishing and other manly pursuits; he does any damn thing he wants to, the less sensible and reasonable the better. He's also the closest thing to a rounded character in the book -- everyone else is a type at best, a collection of twitches at worst, there to bounce off Payne and show various aspects of his character.

McGuane tells this story in a high-octane, look-ma-I'm-writing style, as filtered through heartland America -- razor-sharp transitions between scenes or ideas or characters, arch dialogue and narration that talks around the events, and a focus on cars and women and machismo. The voice is laconic and quietly authoritative, so it can take a while to realize just what that voice is telling you -- like John Wayne narrating a Hunter Thompson audiobook.

Those are the two things that make up The Bushwhacked Piano: the character of Nicholas Payne, doing every last thing that comes into his head, and the voice of Thomas McGuane, telling us about Payne as if he wanted to cram in every thought he ever had about America or men or life or society along the way. It's not a book of plot, and the other characters won't engage you for a second. It's not quite a counterculture novel -- Payne has one speech quite clearly against hippies -- but it's in that vein, and from that era: a barbaric yawp against a world that no longer made sense. If you can get into its groove, it can be a very funny book -- McGuane's writing is supple and quicksilver, flicking from topic to topic like carp in a pond -- and Payne is indeed magnificent despite (or because) of being an asshole.

[1] I won't state absolutely that there's no such thing as a female magnificent asshole -- I hope someone will point me to one -- but I can't think of any, and the type is heavily coded male.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

No comments:

Post a Comment