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Author Thomas McGuane examines the changing West

Thomas McGuane is a storyteller, and he just can’t resist a good laugh. Discussing how life is inherently absurd – a theme that runs through much of his work – he asks, “What do you think a Martian would think if he saw people having sex?” and then launches into a tale about how his Irish Catholic mother explained sex to him when he was about 6 years old, after they’d seen saw two dogs mating outside the grocery store.

“I asked what was going on,” McGuane says, “and she explained it to me in the Irish manner: ‘The little one is sick, and the big one is pushing her to the hospital.'”

The stories in McGuane’s latest collection are somewhat more complex than that little anecdote, but they’re equally funny, bathed in insight, irony and a dark, knowing humor. His third story collection after “To Skin a Cat” and “Gallatin Canyon,” “Crow Fair” (Knopf, $25.95) ranks among his best work, with stories set in Montana that prod and peel apart family bonds that may seem fragile but tie us together even when we’d rather they didn’t.

And so the brothers-in-law in the black comedy “River Camp” argue about real and imagined slights even though they have far more pressing matters to worry about (their fishing guide may be insane, plus bears). The boy in “Hubcaps” comes up with a unique way to cope with his parents’ alcoholism (“By late afternoon, Owen’s parents were usually having their first cocktails”). The narrator of “Grandma and Me” wants to blame all his problems – the shiftlessness, the DUIs – on the old lady. “I knew that thought was a tough sell which defied common sense,” he says, “but it was gathering plausibility for me.”

Thomas McGuane’s third collection of short stories, “Crow Fair,” ranks among his best work.

Thomas McGuane’s third collection of short stories, “Crow Fair,” ranks among his best work.

McGuane, who grew up in Michigan but has lived in Montana for decades, has long been fascinated with blood ties. He’s best known for such outrageous, sex-booze-and-drug-fueled novels as “Panama” and “Ninety-Two in the Shade,” but even in those howling narratives – both set in Key West – he wrestled with the complexity of familial relationships (as well as the more romantic sort of entanglements).

“When I was young, we used to dive into the swimming pool from the highest board on moonless nights, without looking to see if there was water in the pool, knowing it was emptied twice a month,” he writes in “Panama,” widely considered his most autobiographical (and often called his best) novel. “I felt the same blind arc through darkness when I spoke to my father.”

“We spend our whole lives trying to understand our parents,” McGuane, now 75, says. “We’re in a little play, locked into highly developed personalities. The characters in the drama are Mom, Dad and the sibs. So when you think about dramatic situations or writing some kind of narrative, you have these archetypal figures hovering over you. Sometimes you just don’t win that war. The story ‘Hubcaps,’ that had a lot of my life in it, but instead of being a bellicose Republican businessman like my father I converted the father into a guy with a plumbing supply service.”

McGuane’s evolution as a writer has been an interesting one. He has written novels and nonfiction including the essay collections “Some Horses” and “The Longest Silence: A Life in Fishing” (he remains a fly fishing fanatic and vows to get back to the Keys, though he isn’t sure he can stand the sight of cruise ships from Mallory Square).

In the 1970s he dabbled in Hollywood screenwriting, writing scripts for the films “Rancho Deluxe” and “The Missouri Breaks,” which starred Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson. He even wrote and directed a version of “Ninety-Two in the Shade” with Peter Fonda and Warren Oates.

Bks_j10May_McGuane2_CMYKAlso during this period, he earned the excellent nickname “Captain Berserko,” as fine a legacy as anyone could wish for.

“I did have some lively years,” he says now. “I was sex crazed like everybody else. … but what’s wrong with fun? Some of my stuff got a little too well known, but I don’t really feel like apologizing for this. I had a marvelous time.”

Over time, though, McGuane’s work has shifted from the brash free-for-all style of the early books to such novels as “Nothing But Blue Skies,” “Driving on the Rim” and “The Cadence of Grass,” which examine a changing West and its effect on those who live there.

“He’s one of these tremendously gifted writers who has evolved,” says novelist Carl Hiaasen, who first corresponded with McGuane when he was starting to write books himself and later became a friend. “I started reading him with ‘The Bushwhacked Piano’ and ‘The Sporting Club.’ ‘Ninety-Two in the Shade’ was the tipping point for me. That was kind of my world, the outdoor world of the Keys. Over the years he’s changed, and the trajectory of his life has changed. But he’s still got this incredible gift for language and humor. He writes diabolically funny stuff, and the intelligence in the writing is exceptional. … If you’re a fellow writer, you read him, and you just shake your head.”

McGuane agrees that his work has changed over the years.

“I’ve had this job for 45 years,” he says. “You ought to evolve in that time. I think one of the things that made it change is I don’t live among very sophisticated people. I felt a little pressure to write in a way people I know could read. Then I myself have developed a greater interest in directness.”

He sees his work as rumbling a bit against the grain.

“I really do think if you live in a place like Montana there’s an official literature, the Big Sky, all these things about cowboys and Indians and ranchers and pioneers and homesteaders. It’s as though the Chamber of Commerce was picking the book list. I was always frustrated. It didn’t correspond to anything you see on a day-to-day basis, no pizza parlors, no secretaries going to work. … Montana sees itself as a ranching state, but only 2 percent of the people are in ranching. I did feel that I had my back bowed against the official form of western writing.”