Tom McGuane: The Voice of an Outdoors Generation

 

From the July/August 2012 issue of Sporting Classics.

 

If you’ve ever fancied yourself a writer, Tom McGuane ought to be your hero. His first novel, The Sporting Club, was published straight out of college and a beat later he was getting rave reviews from the likes of Saul Bellow and William Faulkner. Soon, this wayward Michigander was living large in Hollywood where he directed Peter Fonda in the screen adaptation of his third novel, Ninety-Two in the Shade.

Seven novels and 37 years later McGuane, once known as Captain Berserko (rivaling Hunter Thompson as their era’s unhinged literary madman) has found his life’s sea legs while sustaining—and even expanding—his substantial literary legacy.

Transporting himself across generations from the original enfant terrible of ’70s literature to his current, tamer embodiment of the eminent novelist, McGuane’s still writing the book on how to live like a great writer. Nowadays, he’s happily secluded on his Montana ranch, nestled in love with his wife, Laurie, and surrounded by their family, friends and diverse pets. And he’s still writing—most recently in the New Yorker which published his short story, “A Prairie Girl,” one of several planned for a forthcoming collection.

Like so many of his protagonists, McGuane seeks his center with a rod and reel in hand. And, after years of rabidly pursuing Earth’s biggest, wildest fish, today he’s more likely to be plying Montana’s lost local waters in search of peace, quiet and the addictive tight line.

“Garden variety, small-stream trout fishing is at the core of who I am as a fisherman,” he says with a hint of irony, knowing his old self would have scoffed at such a mild pursuit. “I love to cast for them in these thermally-challenged prairie streams. They all have something in common—which is that nobody else has much interest in them. I get that pure feeling—reconnecting with my origins as a fisherman.

“In my lifetime, the population of the U.S. has doubled. So if I want to fish the way I grew up fishing, I have to sneak around and discover some secret places no one else knows or cares about. I can’t find the solitude I seek in all the usual spots because everybody else is already there.”

Sometimes, though, McGuane allows himself to share a fishing hole or two with good friends and, once a year, camera crews. It happens on the set of Buccaneers & Bones—an Orion Entertainment production airing on Outdoor Channel where McGuane takes to the waters of the Bahamas with fellow cultural luminaries Tom Brokaw, Michael Keaton and Yvon Chouinard, along with fishing icons Lefty Kreh and Bill Klyn. 

“These are guys I’ve known foryears and so they’re just guys to me,” he says when asked about fishing with folks who are even more famous than he is. “I’ve known every one of them for over a decade. We’re used to doing things together and this trip we do is like a bit of a boys club—there’s a lot of mirth, a lot of comic byplay and a high level of personal comfort between all of us.

“Yvon and I have been close friends for a long time, and he’s one of my favorite people on Earth. Maybe my favorite guy to do things with—spontaneous, oddly unblemished by his success with a great sense of humor, great laugh. All the things I love, he loves.

“And Lefty is the elder statesman who knows more about fishing than any of us. It’s great to just sit back and learn from each other. And there’s no competitive edge. We’re just a pleasant little group of guys out fishing.” Right.

If that actually were the case, camera boats wouldn’t be following them to the nervous waters where permit and bonefish prowl. Still, as in everything he does, McGuane is blithely unimpressed by his famous friends or his literary legacy. The glib tinge to his voice, the easy way that apt phrases roll off his tongue, the devout love he holds for his wife and children—they belie secrets to his success as a husband, father, writer and perhaps most of all, angler.

“The addictive part of fishing is it’s an aroused mental state—a kind of meditative alertness—to achieve a predatory goal not through force but through a kind of spiritual stealth. You can’t detach yourself and hope the fish just force themselves on you. You have to be alert and ready for them—or your opportunity will come and go in the same moment.

“You’re more aware of what’sgoing on around you. You see more things happening in the natural world. And, when it coalesces and you actually hook a fish, it’s an endorsement of your involvement in that realm—and all the minute things you do to insinuate yourself into it.”

Much the way an author insinuates himself into the separate reality of his novel, disguised not as a dry fly but as the illuminating—and essential—narrator.

Like Tom McGuane. Lover of life, sweet solitude and a good woman.

Unmistakable voice of an outdoor generation. These are roles he’s always fulfilled with style and, in recent times, grace. In the process, he’s written an artful passage on what it means to be an able fisherman, distinctive author and, ultimately, a good man who’s worthy of the gifts he was given and the many rewards he’s earned. +++

 

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