Reviewed by Mary McWay Seaman, Celtic Connection, July, 2007 Short story collections make irresistible traveling companions, and Thomas McGuane”s distinguished new volume, GALLATIN CANYON, delivers ten edgy displacement dramas perfectly fitted for interludes on the plane, by the pool or on the back porch. It”s a book to open at random; journey first with the traveler trekking across the page presented by chance – a lonely pilgrim out on the road, searching for sanctuary somewhere up ahead. McGuane probes relationships run aground by plopping characters down on distant soil and thrusting them into clumsy accommodations to troublesome surroundings. Leery of the locals and suspicious of their routines, folks struggle to settle in and shed some personal baggage. These outsiders maintain perches on new landscapes, reconnoiter, connect a bit, and then retreat. Their pasts, destinations unto themselves, keep some secrets in these tales, secrets that urge the players (not all of whom have been dealt poor hands) to alternate strategy and always, always to hold back some cards. A good number of the alienated are mired in uncommitted relationships while casting about for comfort in their new habitats. Humor, satire and exquisite allusions illuminate lives largely free from the ties that bind. Expert at bundling the oddball with the ordinary, McGuane begets sojourners stalked by their own backgrounds as they stagger about in tales entitled “Aliens,” “Old Friends,” “The Zombie,” and “The Refugee.” One gem in the collection is “Miracle Boy,” wherein a teenager surveys the lives of his Irish immigrant grandparents and his American-born parents, aunts, uncles and cousins. With a canny eye, Johnny examines the array of vocations chosen by these people amid the social forces churning through their Massachusetts mill town during the 1950s. The withering compromises necessary for urban assimilation bear frightening similarities to those that confound relatives at a distance. Parents on the move steadily strew old traditions behind them (lightening the load?) and appear bewildered by their shriveling identities. An uncle, returning from a trip to Mother Ireland, “announced that the place was highly disorganized and insufficiently hygienic . . .” Immigrant forebears, those wary keepers of old ways that served up stability and custom, may not have been clean freaks, but they kept order and were steadied by procedure ” foundations of civility and safety. Speaking of his Irish-born grandmother, the boy states, “I even thought of our life in the Midwest, when I”d longed for her intervention in a family slow to invent rules for their new lives.” Struggling with conflicting advice from his elders, Johnny charges into “study of the Old West, a place where do-gooders and mad dogs alike lived free of ambiguity and insidious family tensions.” McGuane”s western stories will disabuse readers of such wishful thinking; however, this story”s wry humor may resonate particularly with those not completely at home in their present circumstances. Western stories set up new arrivals looking for opportunities after business failures, divorce and prison; others dream of peaceful retirement homes near children and grandchildren. Remarks from the chronically adrift chortle with irony as failures to launch new lives are stealthily linked to losses of ordinary conventions and old-fashioned ethics. Common social graces that usually serve people well during difficulties in faraway places are suspended, if not blotted out entirely in some instances. One Big Sky Country character reprogrammed himself to be just “a big believer in what he saw with his own eyes.” Hounded by persistent disruption, a few strivers in the West embrace a self-preservation sustained by earthy arrogance. Other odysseys find sullen, eco-touring, drug-using hippies, the bankrupt, a down-and-out cowboy, and an alcoholic sailboat enthusiast seeking fresh starts on terrain where, according to those in the Massachusetts Irish ghetto, “people made themselves up and were vaguely weightless.” Fraught with ambivalence about total immersion into their new settlements, the wayfarers often sulk within a self-imposed apartheid. In a couple of the stories, McGuane takes some swings at so-called “win-win” solutions for his seekers, suggesting that the very nature of negotiation creates losses all around. The author”s use of the past as a destination is steadily revisited and sometimes employs a symbol harking back to roots ” a tumble-down homestead, a pioneer cemetery, old buffalo wallows, a totem pole, John McCormack records (78s), even food. Displaced persons, dripping with disappointment and dismissive of their former abodes, fall back from time to time on steering mechanisms sparked by old times. Survivors they may be, yet most remain uneasy refugees in outlying limbos. Exhibiting the inhibitions and suspicions common to immigrants throughout the ages, the discontented sufferers in these road-trip sagas are unable to put things completely right. Endurance, rather than success, is their true essence. Thomas McGuane”s superb stories in GALLATIN CANYON pursue diasporas of the restless who, while shucking the husks of ancestral habits, forge onward, skittish about bearing personal history into new territory, and unaware that much of it is already mislaid, if not gone for good. Alfred A Knopf, A division of Random House, 2006, 220 pages, hardcover $24.00 Mary McWay Seaman is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and is a contributing writer to “Gateway” magazine of St. Louis, Missouri, and to the “New Oxford Review” of Berkeley, California.

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