Saturday, August 24, 2013

Driving on the rim is good

Thomas McGuane's tenth novel, Driving on the Rim, is in the vein of Twain; surefooted sentence-making concealing what is otherwise a disoriented Oldsmobile 88 rambling through eccentric farm land.

But wait!” you can almost hear McGuane cry. “I'm not even driving this Olds!” And this would be true insofar as it's one of his characters driving it, Berl Pickett, a country doctor. 

Can you defer artistic responsibility upon your first-person protagonist? I'm saying that you can by saying it here first.

The ride is jarring; Berl has a form of topographical narrative disorder. We like where he is taking us, but never sure of the conditions, or if this is the best route.

The author hasn't used first person since 1978's Panama — not everyone's favorite. In fact, critics gave him hell for Panama, a little unfairly, I reckon because I loved the sad, funny story about the price of fame starring a burnt-out case with a brain fried so dearly on cocaine that he can't remember his dog's name. Panama was loosely autobiographical, while the new one isn't. In fact, B. Pickett, is about as far from T. McGuane as H. Humbert is from V. Nabokov. 

For much of the novel, Berl's practice is the door and window into this ailing community. But do we need the hangnails? Lot of people coming and going and Berl seems to record them all. I don't recall The Wire having this many characters. Over the long haul, the complaints seem to bury the plot.

Though McGuane never divulges Berl's age at present, we know he's socially immature (old men are often this way), and we can assume he's old enough to know the proper advanced age to write a memoir regardless of circumstances (I considered it at 28 but I was pretentious). Berl's not so old that he requires a testosterone deodorant as a precursor to amorous pursuits because that would be horribly tasteless, yet in McGuane's hands probably really funny.

Berl's story is a doozy, but the memoir could use some oil. What never is in doubt is McGuane's masterful control of language and his laconic aphorisms.

On an uncivilized associate he meets for dinner: He must have been proud of his Panama hat because he wore it all through the meal.” By the way, I wore mine to a bbq recently and then forgot to take it off indoors while we were boogying and the next morning found it an irrevocable, misshapen heap, which made me think that I should have better manners when it comes to wearing silly hats indoors if I want to keep them together.

At 306 pages, Driving on the Rim is beefy for a comic novel, but impressively there is only one misfire: a bit of whimsy involving an uncertain breakdance to a favorite band in front of a lover's house singing “Too Much Pork for Just One Fork.”

There's not a whole lot of driving, but there is drive. Perhaps the title refers to McGuane's navigational control? Maybe his narrative could use some testosterone stick? 

Look now Bird thinks it's funny.

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