Driving on the Rim

By Thomas McGuane

Thomas McGuane’s ninth novel returns us to his home state of Montana, taking us back to a kind of place and a type of fiction that seems alien to the twenty-first century. The narrator is a small-town doctor named Irving Berlin (“Berl”) Pickett, a native of the area who has lived there his entire life. If those two words “small town” immediately bring to mind days spent fishing, bird-watching, or hunting with a favourite hound, a community made up of long-resident eccentrics, a place where everyone knows your name (and knows who is having an affair with whom), a time when folksy doctors made house calls and all of nature seemed in tune with life’s passages, then you will feel right at home in McGuane’s big sky country. And if you miss the sort of traditional storytelling you’re only likely to find today in contemporaries of McGuane (John Irving and Richard Ford come to mind), then Driving on the Rim will provide your fix.

It wasn’t always like this. McGuane has mellowed as a writer over the years, no longer the wild child of American literature he was in the 1970s. His writing can still be as pointed and biting as barb wire – his comic dialogue delivers non sequitur punch lines with an exquisite touch, and he always manages to fully occupy the fictional moment – but the story is harder to get excited about.

Pickett is an aging social misfit well aware of his own inadequacies who nevertheless gets to service most of the local townswomen (he is a doctor, you see, and this is a novel). Women, however, also threaten to be his downfall. His romantic attachments lead him into several possibly criminal misadventures and dangerous situations. And yet given his laid-back nature he never seems terribly concerned with anything that’s going on. The story, as a result, simply ambles along without a great deal of purpose through various sketchily-related episodes, introducing type characters and admiring the lovely local scenery. There’s even a “What was I doing on 9/11” chapter (the answer: enjoying a fishing getaway).

The invocation of 9/11 feels forced, one of the few false notes, and yet also inevitable in such a book. The American novel outgrew twilight sketches of little towns quite a while ago. McGuane is describing a contemporary landscape with nostalgia.

Review first published online January 2, 2012.

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