Two things were soon apparent: McGuane is a talented writer, and I had trouble relating to his characters.
Although author Thomas McGuane is a new name to me, Crow Fair, a collection of short stories, is his 16th book. The stories center on young- to middle-aged men who live in rural America, which means they are people in situations that are nearly alien to me. Still, I gave the book a chance; you never know, right?
Two things were soon apparent, even with the first story: McGuane is a talented writer, and, as expected, I had trouble understanding—and even liking—his characters.
“Weight Watchers” is a first-person story about a man whose father comes to stay with him. Dad has been kicked out by Mom for his obesity: She wanted him to get in shape—elsewhere, so she didn’t have to deal with it. The bond between father and son is awkward, with the son viewing his dad as more distraction and interruption than cherished family. He helps his father lose some weight, yet his goal is not the same as his father’s. Rather, the son just wants to get his father out of his house; reconciliation with Mom is secondary.
In “The House on Sand Creek,” the narrator reflects on a disastrous rental home he and his new, Yugoslavia-born wife Monika acquire. He sees the house as the reason she leaves him—not himself, and certainly not the man with whom she has an affair. He forms an odd, somewhat codependent relationship with Bob, a neighbor who comes more often than he goes, and always stays too long. When Monika returns to the country with their child, Karel, the question arises as to whether he will take her back. The reader screams, “No!”; the main character not so much. Making such poor decisions as he has, he becomes a man we look down upon, rather than relate to and respect.
“Grandma and Me” is a real oddity (not that it stands alone in this respect). An uncharacteristically (for this book) young man acts as his grandmother’s eyes, the old woman having lost her sight three years prior. To put it bluntly, his actions are so atrocious that our dislike begins to simmer into hate. How can we be expected care about such a selfish person?
A rarity in third person, “Hubcaps” is yet another story in which parental discord plays a role. Baseball and farms factor in and, like other entries, the ending is vague and inconclusive. In both “On a Dirt Road” and “The Casserole,” more hapless, clueless husbands deal with selfish, wandering, secret-keeping wives. Old man Clay, the protagonist of “A Long View to the West,” owns a rural used car dealership hurting for business. You get the idea.
I’ll confess: I didn’t make it through the entire book. With such familiar, often unlikeable characters populating the stories, I just couldn’t do it. They kept making bad decisions, kept acting like assholes, kept failing to see what was right in front of them. True, having sympathetic characters is by no means a requirement for fiction—or nonfiction, for that matter. But, like as in real life, I don’t enjoy spending time with people I don’t like; after giving them more than a few chances to redeem themselves, I find it better to just walk away. | Laura Hamlett