Crow Fair: Stories
288 pp., $25.95
"Now I see you again, and you are grown men, I must tell the truth. There doesn't seem to be much to either one of you." ("Crow Fair")
As that tidbit from the title story suggests, the voices in Tom McGuane's latest collection, Crow Fair, often sound like country singers composing lyrics. But their ponderings are better, newer, sillier, and fresher. They are all natives of McGuane, Montana, where their author has freed them from suffering while assigning to many a farcical fate. Perhaps the sensitive reader of Crow Fair will smilingly conclude after reading these stories that McGuane's people are as real as we are—but larger than life, maybe even preposterous. But test them against people you know, including yourself. A quick survey of mine: A family friend who pretended her son was her dead brother's? The paralyzed co-worker who's glad he's "locked-in" since he won't have to teach high school any more? Or the cousin frisked at the church rail when he seeks the anointing of the Holy Spirit? McGuane's comic x-rays come to life in your experience, and standing at the checkout line you mutter internally: Pure McGuane.
"I like to be tired. In some ways, that's the point of what I do." This from the narrator of "Weight Watchers" who just finished genially hosting his father's visit, said Dad having to lose weight at the son's house before Mom will take him back. The awkward burden of care-taking ended, the narrator concludes: "I have a cell phone, but I only use it to call out."
In McGuane, Montana, the menace of wild rivers and grizzly bears is allayed by humble domestic matters. The narrator of "Grandma and Me" takes the blind grandmother to the river for a picnic where she can exercise her remaining sense of smell. A corpse floats by, rejected lover-suicide, but she only smells the snow in the river. Old Ed Smith in "An Old Man Who Liked to Fish" wants to wade streams as he used to but drowns while fishing; his wife amidst her Alzheimer's haze believes he's off with that durn Francine. An eco-prof from Bozeman on a mountain hike enjoys pastoral bliss by a creek until she spots a man with a trapped wolf. He offers to let her kill him when she says she wants to, but the pistol is not her thing, so he goes ahead and shoots the wolf for sale on Ebay.
No fun is being made of blind grandmas who are also losing their sense of smell, stumbling fly fishermen, or agonized Earth First protestors. Things are just the way they are. And, yes, some McGuaneites do thrive. A former prostitute at the now closed "Butt Hut" sets her sights on the town's banker. Though gay he marries her; she duly learns the ins and outs of mortgage policies and ends up owning the bank after he flies to San Juan Capistrano. Goofy? Maybe as much as real life—goofier than we'll admit. McGuane pops the jack-in-the-box in story after story and the suddenly present clown throws light. Not mean satire, just knee-buckling recognition. A schoolteacher's wife has simply had it with her husband's dissing her humble farm parents and home place, so when they ferry across for the dreaded visit he gets a casserole from her mom while her father cradles a pistol and wishes him Godspeed.
Best to sit down while reading these stories or you might fall down laughing at what that goody-goody piece of you will tell you not to find amusing. The fishing guide in "River Camp" seems a tad scary, but he's going to be bear dinner. On the way there he tells his two fish-less clients who doubt his guiding efficacy: "How about you try going broke on eating-disorder clinics to wake up to find your wife still gobbling her food? Forty K in the hole and she's facedown in a ham!" His protesting clients aren't worth much either. One, a surgeon, fishes to forget a mistake in the hospital. Both remain in character even as "their boat was swept into the wave, and under; and Jack and Tony were never seen again."
If you've been drugged by the seriousness of everything lately, take a break and read Crow Fair. It's vitamins for the soul.
Bruce Wiebe is a retired high school English teacher, woodworker, and Kindle reader in Lakeville, Minnesota.
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