Sunday, October 24, 2010

Montana and Wyoming fiction writers give freaks a pass

“Giving freaks a pass is the oldest tradition in Montana. And you, my friend, are a blue-ribbon, bull-goose freak.”

That’s a line from Thomas McGuane’s new novel, “Driving on the Rim,” Maile Meloy reviewed the novel (mostly favorably) and referred to those lines as her favorites. I like them too.

I haven’t read a McGuane novel since “92 in the Shade.” And that was decades ago. More recently I’ve read McGuane’s essay collection, “A Sporting Chance.” Practically everything I know about cutting horses I know from this fine book. McGuane raises and trains cutting horses in Montana. As a youth, I was chronically allergic to horse hair and hay and weeds and almost everything else you can find on a ranch. Fortunately, I was a city boy and not a farmer’s son out on the prairie.

I have since been on horseback five or six times without collapsing with an asthma attack. But my sensibilities are totally non-horse and horses know it.

Maybe that’s why I’m so taken with McGuane’s facility with horses. Horses and language. As Meloy points out in the NYT review, McGuane’s novels are a little baggy while his essays are succinct works of art. She also points out some factual inconsistencies regarding some of the book’s characters.

But she’s willing to give McGuane a pass on this. Just as the attorney in the book in willing to give a Montana-style pass to the main character. Meloy gives McGuane a pass because he’s such a damn fine writer and he’s written a good book.

I sometimes get a bit suspicious when a fictional character’s freakishness is called out. It’s almost as if the author, who’s spent thousands of words portraying his character’s quirkiness, must now actually say the word “freak!” Just in case you missed all the clues.

But there’s something a bit deeper here. Have the quirky characters of the Rocky Mountain West become a bit of a stereotype? Quirky people live here, denizens of the Great Wide Open. They often have fled the more settled places of the East and South and Coastal West. They are tough individualists drawn to the live-and-let-live Code of the West. It’s not a code, exactly, more like guidelines. But you know what I mean.

Used to be all the freaky characters came from the minds of writers of the South – William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Larry Brown, Kaye Gibbons, Barry Hannah, Harry Crews, etc. Along came Annie Proulx, Lee K. Abbott, John Nichols, Rick DeMaranis, Ron Carlson, Alyson Hagy, etc. These writers of the West wrote great stories and novels about freakish people driven by a search for solitude or personal freedom or some undefined crucial core value. Southern characters, on he other hand, were driven more by ghosts of the so-called glorious past and the constraints of their old-time religion.

I love freaky characters. I often try to invent some for my stories. But just because you live in a freakish place, such as Montana or Wyoming, that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook when it comes to creating believable characters.

Name the freakiest place you know. If you’re a button-down Midwesterner, Boulder, Colorado’s Pearl Street Mall might test your sensibilities. If you’re a hipster from Boulder, a trip to Sun City, Ariz., might cause you to come unglued.

Wyoming is pretty freaky, I must admit. Bill Sniffin’s Sunday newspaper column was devoted to the antics of the former Miss Wyoming-World, Joyce McKinney. McKinney is the focus of Errol Morris’s latest documentary, “Tabloid.” In 1977 in London, she kidnapped a former boyfriend, a young LDS missionary, and forced him to have sex for three days. The British tabloids had a field day with this woman who committed rape on a man. That’s the focus of Morris’s film.

Sniffin of Lander also recalled that McKinney surfaced a few years in Tennessee, paying a man to burglarize a house “to pay for an artificial leg for a three-legged horse.”

As Playlist says about Morris’s story: “Intoxicatingly entertaining and outrageously wild, Hollywood’s top writers could never have dreamed this up.”

Hollywood writers? No. But Mountain West writers – of course.

No comments: