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Something to Be Desired by Thomas McGuane (Random House: $14.95; 173 pp.)

January 06, 1985|CHARLES CHAMPLIN

Although he was born in Michigan and attended the Yale Drama School among other very in-town institutions, Thomas McGuane lives in Montana and writes often and well about a contemporary working West enriched by various forms of collision.

The Old West does not so much live on as hang on--for dear life--trying to preserve the myth of the free-wandering man, riding the dusty trail from the remote ranch to town, though now in a half-ton pickup instead of on horseback. The larger world intrudes constantly; Freud and Zane Grey eat at the same cafe or recover at the same spa. The sensibility is somehow part farce, part tragedy, a mix of urban and rural, present and past, or so it plays in McGuane's work.

McGuane, who wrote Frank Perry's good, curious little film "Rancho De Luxe" in 1974, has in his new novel, "Something to Be Desired," created characters who live out the lyrics of country-Western songs, building hangovers strong enough to make the hair hurt, to cover the pains of loss and the guilts of straying. The sleeves the hearts are worn on have pearl buttons atop frayed cuffs. But in "Something to Be Desired," there is a kind of interleaving, another side of the protagonist's character (and of the author's perception, it could well be) that sees the farcical passages as a kind of role-playing, a thin cover for deeper and subtler states.

These states include a nostalgia for a self-reliant Western life in which a man could fish, hunt and otherwise take care of himself, combing the high country without flushing dude riders or a television crew. McGuane's Lucien Taylor owns a more-complicated nostalgia for his errant and fugitive father, long dead, and a need for posthumous reconciliation, so to speak, that has its parallel in Taylor's need to win the friendship of his own estranged boy.

Taylor has one boot at least in the wider world. He's been to university, tried to be a painter, served the United States Information Agency in foreign climes, married the girl he loved second-best and come home again for the trial of the girl he loved most, who has shot her doctor husband.

So "Something to Be Desired" is also about obsessive love, on which country-Western songs do not enjoy a monopoly. Lucien falls apart, carousing through town and memory, giving the novel its most farcical and also its most soul-baring passages. (The book is hardly more than novella-length, but by the literary equivalent of jump-cuts, McGuane gets across a good deal of time and space.)

Lucien reassembles himself, turns his hot springs into a tourist spa, becomes as responsible as he's likely to get, persuades his long-suffering ex-wife Suzanne to come for a visit, bringing the boy, and tries to reassemble the past as well.

But individual lives have a way of coming together more efficiently than collected lives. Resolvings have their own appeal, even if they are down scale from reconciliations and reunions. An obsession neutralized is poignant but relieving, and there's the lurking excitement, which I detect in the novel, that nobody lives calmly ever after, either.

McGuane's has a luxurious gift of dark comic invention--the disposing of the remains of a stricken spa-goer is a running joke--but the farcicality is a coloration, not an end. What gives "Something to Be Desired" its edge is the reader's sense that the feelings expressed--nostalgia, obsession, estrangement, emotional collapse--began somewhere in remembered pain, however they have been transmuted as fiction.

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