Monday, October 18, 2010

The hazardous beauty of "Gallatin Canyon"

In preparation for my conversation with Thomas McGuane tomorrow, I've been reading as much of his past work as I can, starting with Ninety-Two in the Shade from 1973, and just now finishing his most-recent collection of short stories, Gallatin Canyon.  As much as Ninety-Two in the Shade is a jittery, drug-fueled story of an ill-fated Florida fishing guide, Gallatin Canyon is practically elegiac with its calmer, mellower voice.  McGuane's trademark humor is still there, but, as I mentioned in my review of Driving on the Rim, there seems to be something deeper and more reflective at work here in his later work.

I could find many passages in the marvelous stories of Gallatin Canyon to illustrate my point, but the one which struck me the most personally was a paragraph from the title story.  It's about an unlikeable character, a businessman, who is driving from Montana to Idaho with his girlfriend in order to extricate himself from the sale of a car dealership.  His relationship with the girl is on unstable footing, just as he's unsure exactly how to close the deal in Idaho.  There is as much peril inside the car as there is in the landscape speeding by outside.

McGuane describes a section of highway in Montana I've driven many times--between Four Corners and West Yellowstone--and I think it's this connection between reader and fiction-veiled landscape which resonated so clearly with me.
We joined the stream of traffic heading south, the Gallatin River alongside and usually much below the roadway, a dashing high-gradient river with anglers in reflective stillness at the edges of its pools and bright rafts full of delighted tourists in floatation jackets and crash helmets sweeping through its white water.  Gradually, the mountains pressed in on all this humanity, and I found myself behind a long line of cars trailing a cattle truck at well below the speed limit.  This combination of cumbersome commercial traffic and impatient private cars was a lethal mixture that kept our canyon in the papers, as it regularly spat out corpses.  In my rearview mirror, I could see a line behind me that was just as long as the one ahead, stretching back, thinning, and vanishing around a green bend.  There was no passing lane for several miles.  A single amorous elk could have turned us all into twisted, smoking metal.
There's a lot to admire here: the stark contrast between the contemplative anglers wading in trout-rich pools and the "bright rafts" sweeping past with "delighted tourists," the canyon which "regularly spat out corpses," and--especially--that "single amorous elk" which could spell disaster for everyone.  It's just one moment in one story, but it made the entire book jump to life in my hands.


  1. It's a typical McGuane description, full and vivid, and yet in the end, on the verge of the apocalypse. Real life is like that. Good luck with the interview. Please give Tom my regards. We still need to fish the West Boulder as planned. Some day.

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