The Magazine

Decline of the West

Thomas McGuane's flawed fiction.

May 6, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 33 • By WOODY WEST
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The Cadence of Grass
by Thomas McGuane
Knopf, 256 pp., $24

IF A REVIEWER expresses "disappointment" in a book, it is evident that the book's author is going to be roughed up. But if that author has achieved a wide reputation for his craft--and had innumerable literary prizes bestowed upon him--then "disappointment" is actually a civil way to put it.

Although often wedged into one of the darker rooms of the literary mansion labeled "Western writer," Thomas McGuane has always been admiringly reviewed. Critics who combine a bookish sensibility with affinity for the outdoors rank him among the chosen. "The Longest Silence: A Life in Fishing" is often ranked with Norman Maclean's "A River Runs Through It." McGuane's sketches and essays collected in "Some Horses" have been praised even by critics who've never been closer to a nag than the $2 window at the racetrack. And it is generally acknowledged that McGuane can write with grace, wit, and effect.

Those qualities are present in his new novel, "The Cadence of Grass"--but not enough to redeem a book that did not seem to be begging to be written and that lacks any center of gravity. One suspects that McGuane churned it out because it is his trade to write: a writerly walk on the weird side. The story concerns a man named Paul Caruso, who is handsome, charming, and without two moral molecules to rub together. His marriage to Evelyn Whitelaw has ended, not least because he also was bonking (in that useful British euphemism) her sister Natalie. Natalie has just returned from her latest drug-rehab session to the Montana hometown where she has a reputation for shoplifting. Her latest fear is that she has stopped "emitting pheromones," while her husband, Stuart, is bland to just this side of catatonia.

The patriarch of this turbulent tribe, Sunny Jim Whitelaw, owns the local soft-drink plant. If anything, he trumps son-in-law Paul's amorality with inventive cruelty. The novel opens the day of Sunny Jim's funeral, the family brought together "by the apparently complete lack of feeling for the deceased." Present also is Bill Champion, Sunny Jim's partner in a cattle ranch that has never been able to pay its way.

Champion evidently is intended by McGuane as a counterpoise of authenticity to the mutually destructive members of the Whitelaw family--but it is with Champion that the reader first senses the novel's compass is wobbly. Evelyn is the only Whitelaw attuned to Champion and the range and horses, and over the years she has spent much time on the ranch (from which eventually comes a revelation that is not terribly surprising).

IN "THE CADENCE OF GRASS," there are extensive sections about Champion and Evelyn and their horses. McGuane presumably intended these interludes to express a vestigial genuineness that would stand in contrast to the ravages of contemporary culture. Reminiscing about an old cowpoke he'd known, for example, Champion says, "He led his sorrel mare out of the pen. . . . She was a little sickle-hocked, which I'm sure he preferred, and she had good withers, short pasterns, a kind of coon-footed, low-croup cow-horse look to her." Then there's Evelyn on her horse Cree: "He was a nicely made colt with a butt that was closed right down to the back of his knee with muscle, feet set nicely under him and a pretty slope to his shoulder and withers. He had tight, round hoofs at the end of moderately sloped pasterns nicely domed around the frog that took a size-aught shoe and never split out a nail or chipped when he was barefoot, but left a rounded, nearly burnished edge . . ." Well, okay.

Or take the padding apparent in this description of Evelyn saddling up for a ride: "Evelyn searched through the bridles that seemed, in her view, to be festooned from too few pegs, so that in hunting through them for the short shanked Kelly Brothers grazer, all she could find were snaffles, Argentines bits, a cable tie-down, offside billet straps, cinchas with broken strings, detached go-betweens, old steel stirrups, . . . a coppermouth John Israel, a gag bit, an Easy Stop, a knockoff of a Garcia spade, boot tops made into saddlebags and a chain twitch with a handle from a World War II foxhole shovel . . ." And on and on it goes.

Sunny Jim has known from the time Evelyn and Paul married, and his son-in-law went to work for him, that Paul is a snake. He knows Paul has been stealing from him and has told Paul he would recoup his losses by "selling [Paul's] vital organs, if these thefts should recur." Paul does not believe him, but one evening, after joining his father-in-law in a goatish spree, he wakes up in a post-surgical setting minus a kidney. And C.R. Marjub, a longtime--and hitherto unknown--associate of Sunny Jim's, as it happens, required a kidney transplant.