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Gallatin CanyonReview - Gallatin Canyon
Stories
by Thomas McGuane
Knopf, 2006
Review by Tony O'Brien
Dec 5th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 49)

The cover of Thomas McGuane's second book of short stories Gallatin Canyon shows the edge of a road, bounded by a scarred concrete barrier, its black and yellow arrows dimly lit by a threatening sky. You shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but in this case you could make an exception. Gallatin Canyon is a collection of stories about the other side of the barrier, about lives that veer close to it, graze against it, and sometimes crash through it.

The ten stories in this collection are more than enough for McGuane to showcase his virtuoso descriptive skills, his observations of detail, and his deep sympathy for the outsiders most of us wouldn't give a second thought. McGuane is also a wry humorist, so that even in stories of death and bitterness he is able to draw a smile. In The Zombie he describes the "strobes of the big cow-town discos where today's dowagers once wriggled in precopulatory abandon". In the next sentence he tells us: "For a banker, Neville Senior was remarkably free of malice." The main characters are men, from the coming of age schoolboy in Ice to Homer, the retired lawyer of Aliens. Few of them enjoy the comforts of settled relationships with their girlfriends or wives.

In Cowboy I learnt a few new words, like 'cavvy', 'scours', and 'honyocker'. Cowboy is a thoroughly memorable story of an unlikely friendship that survives the death of one of the partners. There are shades of Brokeback Mountain, although not with the theme of forbidden love, and thankfully not with Brokeback Mountain's savage vengeance. The deep affection that develops between a ranch owner and the hired man has a warmth that lifts the story above its desolate rural landscape.†††

The title story is a triumph of escalating tension and opportunities lost. There is a sense of inevitability that things will turn out badly, despite attempts to make good. A man and his girlfriend drive to Rigby, Idaho, through the treacherous and twisting Gallatin Canyon. The man is playing tough on a business deal, something that irritates his lawyer girlfriend. He manages to rescue the deal, but the ground has moved, and there is no going back. The return trip seems to provide a chance of redemption, but the dialogue raises the tension: "Drive defensively." "Not much choice, is there?" The couple makes it through, but the Canyon claims another victim.

McGuane is a relentless pursuer of detail. The longest story The Refugee features a wooden yawl lashed by a storm in the Gulf of Mexico. In this story you'll read more maritime terms than you'll find in your average nautical almanac. The story pitches and tosses through confessions and recriminations, delirium and death. You wonder how long a small ship and a lone sailor can last, but McGuane ranges far and wide in this tale. The Refugee is almost a novella, rich and deep enough to sustain a much longer narrative, not that McGuane has short-changed readers. The story has that unique quality of being fully rewarding and yet leaving you wanting more.

These are great stories. The characters of Gallatin Canyon all travel that narrow road, with only a crumbling barrier between the deceptive bends at the edge and the boiling water of the river.

 

© 2006 Tony O'Brien

 

Tony O'Brien is a short story writer and lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Auckland, New Zealand: a.obrien@auckland.ac.nz


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