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Fiction

December 14, 1986|Lee K. Abbott

TO SKIN A CAT by Thomas McGuane (Dutton's/Seymour Lawrence: $16.95; 224 pp.). For fans of his six novels, including, most recently, "Something to Be Desired," there will be few, if any, surprises in the dozen tales that are Thomas McGuane's first collection of short fiction. Whether set in the once-Wild West of Deadrock, Mont., or in the wilder West of San Francisco, his concerns remain "level playing fields, a smoking gun, a hand that would not tremble, who was on board and what was on the line."

As usual, McGuane focuses on "the rarity of daily life, the wondrous speckling of the trivial, the small but necessary, and the tissue of small delusions that keep good people going." And, happily, there's his purposeful prose, goofy with irony, and mock-insouciant enough to tickle the hipster in us.

The bad news is that novelist McGuane is not a story-writer. Except for "Flight" and "The Rescue," both to ordinary stories what the pistol is to the pea shooter, these works do not profit from the demands unique to the short form. Often, his is a yarn overcrowded and front-heavy with exposition, its essential scenes unwritten, sometimes begun in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

McGuane is more spectacular in his failures than are many writers in their successes. Even at its worst, his is a vision of "dogs, horses, gardens, cattle pastures, and carnal love" that connect him, and us, to "a world that chronically drifted into cloudiness."

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