Crow Fair

By Thomas McGuane

(Knopf, $25.95, 288 pages)

Who is this author?

Thomas McGuane, chronicler of the contemporary American West, lives on a ranch in Montana, and is an expert fly fisherman. He’s also an expert writer who has published 10 novels, three nonfiction books and  two collections of stories. His best-known books include The Bushwacked Piano, Gallatin Canyon, Keep the Change, Ninety-two in the Shade and, Nothing but Blue Skies. He was married to actress Margo Kidder and Jimmy Buffett’s sister Laurie. According to the Barnes & Noble Review, “In the 1970s, when McGuane partied with the likes of Buffett, Peter Fonda, and Sam Peckinpah, he was nicknamed Captain Berserko. Today, at seventy-five, he looks like a cross between the World’s Greatest Grandpa and the Marlboro Man.”

What is this book about?

In his first collection in nine years, McGuane gives us 17 stories that capture life in the far West, where freedom is treasured but the constraints of modern life still pertain. Two shocked sons learn things about Mama they’d rather have never known; a dad tries to be an outdoorsman but can’t cope with dangerous weather; a guy who makes a good living inseminating cattle unwisely pursues dreams of big money; a father and son face Dad’s out of control peccadillos; two brothers-in-law find that their loony guide is leading them into the fishing trip from Hell; a couple breaks up while celebrating their 25th anniversary. Most of the stories take place in Montana and are redolent with Western flavor, but the conflicts they describe, told with McGuane’s typical droll style and dark diversions, could take place, and be just as compelling, anywhere.

Why you’ll like it:

I’ve had the pleasure of reading some of the stories in McGuane’s latest collection when they appeared in The New Yorker: I loved their wry humor, unpredictable trajectories, quirky characters and Western flair. Although he is 75, he writes with the verve of a much younger man. McGuane is one of those “national treasure” writers who help define contemporary American literature. His fans will appreciate this collection; for those unfamiliar with his work, it opens a new door to reading enjoyment.

What others are saying:


In the The New York Times Book Review, Atticus Lish writes: “McGuane—a Montana resident who in 10 novels and two previous story collections has honed a kind of bluff Western comedy of masculinity—turns muck into art, which takes wing in flights of ingenuity…Some bonds are timeless and intractable. McGuane may be unable to free himself from his family romance, but, through his obsessive struggle, the author of Crow Fair provides us with a series of imaginative escapes that are mysterious and illuminating.”

Publishers Weekly’s starred review says: “Me and Ray thought you ought to see what dementia looks like,” a woman named Morsel tells Dave, who has just driven Ray across the prairie to visit Morsel and her peculiar father. It’s one of many funny, sad, and awful, awfully human moments from McGuane’s latest story collection featuring aging cowboys, middle-aged men resistant to growing up, and the women who plague and perplex them. “Motherlode” traces the road trip to Morsel’s house from a not-so-chance encounter at a small town hotel to a scheme for selling drugs in Montana’s northern oil fields. McGuane’s Montana retains wistful and ironic echoes of the Old West. The title story recounts how two brothers handle their dying mother’s revelation of her long-ago love affair at the Crow Fair powwow/Wild West Show. With imagery as sparse and striking as the landscape, houses figure prominently. “Weight Watchers” shows a man who builds homes only for other people. The repossessed “House on Sand Creek” becomes home to a real estate lawyer, his Eastern European wife, her infant son, and Bob the babysitter. At the “Fishing Camp,” two longtime friends find their wilderness guide cannot stand being in the wilderness with men who keep arguing about the past. Among female characters, “Prairie Girl” shines as she makes her way from prostitute to bank president. A boy steals hubcaps; a shaman begs charity; a girl hikes toward the howling of wolves: McGuane’s stories highlight the detachment of young from old, husband from wife, neighbor from neighbor, the dying from life itself.”

“One of McGuane’s great gifts is the ability to elicit laughter in dark moments or to jolt the reader of an ostensibly comic tale with a knife twist of pathos or tragedy . . . the only thing [the reader] can expect is to be surprised – by McGuane’s deadpan wit, his hyperactive imagination, and his deep appreciation for the human comedy . . . [Crow Fair] serves not merely to make us gape or laugh at man’s essential weirdness but also to recognize a bit of it in ourselves,” Says Stefan Beck in The Christian Science Monitor.

In its starred review, Library Journal says: “Family ties form the focus of these turbulent stories, set mostly in Montana. The title story concerns the strained relationship of two brothers that’s exacerbated by the discovery of their saintly mother’s infidelity. “A Long View to the West” explores the highly ambivalent feelings of a son, a small-town car dealer, toward his father as he listens once again to his too-familiar stories when visiting him in the hospital. “River Camp” concerns another strained relationship, this one between lifelong friends who have booked a backwoods expedition in hopes of repairing their friendship only to find themselves in the hands of a mentally unstable guide. In “The Casserole,” a seemingly comfortable marriage unexpectedly breaks up on the couple’s 25th anniversary as they drive to her parents’ house for what is supposed to be a celebratory get-together. VERDICT Very little about the world is ever as solid as it might seem for McGuane’s solitary and troubled characters, as the foundations of their lives can give way at a moment’s notice, leaving them suddenly bereft—or with only a casserole somehow stuffed into in a lunch pail to carry them through the long ride home. A compelling, emotionally charged collection.”

Kirkus’ starred review says: “Seventeen stories, straightforward but well-crafted, that cement McGuane’s reputation as the finest short story writer of Big Sky country—and, at his best, beyond. These days, McGuane’s writing could hardly be further from the showy, overwritten prose of his breakthrough novels like Ninety-two in the Shade (1973). His sense of humor remains, but it’s wiser, more fatalistic and more Twain-like; he writes beautifully about the wilderness but always with an eye on its destructive power. As with much of his recent fiction, most of the stories here are set in Montana and turn on relationships going bust. In “Hubcaps,” a young boy observes his parents’ breakup through the filter of baseball and football games, capturing the protagonist’s slowly emerging resentment; in “Lake Story,” a man’s long-running affair with a married woman collapses during an ill-advised public outing, exposing the thinness of the connections that united them; in “Canyon Ferry,” a divorced dad’s attempt to prove his intrepidness to his young son during an ice-fishing trip pushes them to the edge of disaster during a storm. One of the best stories in the collection, “River Camp,” displays McGuane’s skill at pairing emotional turmoil with the untamed outdoors, following two brothers-in-law whose attempt to get away from it all leads them to a tour guide of questionable mental stability, bears rustling through tents and plenty of exposed raw nerves about their marriages. “Stars” tells a similar story in a more interior mode, following an astronomer who increasingly fails to contain her anger at the workaday world—McGuane skillfully depicts the small but constant ways life goes off-plumb for her—and how she fumbles toward balance in the forest. The conflicts throughout this book are age-old—indeed, the title story evokes “Oedipus”—but McGuane’s clean writing and psychological acuity enliven them all. A slyly cutting batch of tales from a contemporary master.”

When is it available?

Take a trip to Montana through this book, now at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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