Thomas McGuane's Driving on the Rim is being widely received as a picaresque, i.e. an episodic recounting of its narrator's less-than-heroic misadventures. It reads more like a mystery to me, though not by virtue of genre. The mystery is this: How did a writer of McGuane's precision manage to produce such a shaggy book?
You have to take McGuane at his word that this—his first novel told in the first-person since 1978's Panama, itself widely considered at least semi-autobiographical—is fiction, but he seems to have written it according to Mark Twain's curious guidelines for autobiography: "...start it at no particular time of your life; wander at your free will all over your life; talk only about the thing which interests you for the moment; drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale..."
Which is to say that protagonist Irving Berlin "Berl" Pickett, M.D., a small-town Montana physician taking stock of a life approaching its homestretch, is a world-class rambler with no discernible destination in mind. That quality may convey certain realistic virtues, but it can also make readers, especially in the book's wobbly first third, wish they were sitting on a barstool next to Berl—whence they could leave at will—instead of stuck inside his head.
"...I've come a long way, and lately I've wondered how this all happened," Berl says on page one. Thus begins 300 pages of wondering, punctuated by a series of mismatched romantic encounters (inaugurated in Berl's early teens by a randy aunt with a blind spot for familial propriety) and anchored around local suspicion that Berl may have played a passive hand in the death of a former girlfriend who arrived in his emergency room with a self-inflicted stab wound that she failed to survive. Maddeningly, Berl never actually denies it, though it's clear he's not guilty. But if he's not guilty of negligent homicide, he considers himself guilty of plenty else besides, and that fact badly confuses his own sense of self.
If only all the confusion were purposeful.
At times even McGuane seems to lose track of Berl's muddled mind. For instance: Berl describes a woman named Deanne, who "seemed slightly mature for the clever T-shirt she wore: 'Make Awkward Sexual Advances, Not War.'" Two paragraphs later, same scene, sans costume change, Deanne is wearing "some sort of insulated jacket over a black turtleneck shirt." That's just one egregious example. Seemingly random lurches in scene and tone litter the book. In terms of structure and internal continuity, Driving on the Rim is a mess. His editor(s) let him down. But it's not much fun to judge a novel on its errors.
It may be hard to remember now, but Tom McGuane used to be a literary rock star. His prose "pyrotechnics" (the word appears in almost every review) in early works—The Sporting Club (1969), The Bushwacked Piano (1971) and Ninety-Two in the Shade (1973)—put him in critical company with the likes of Thomas Pynchon (whose Gravity's Rainbow topped Ninety-Two for the 1974 National Book Award). He courted actresses, wrote coke-fueled screenplays and crashed a Porsche in Texas on his way to earning the doubtless now embarrassing nickname Captain Berserko.
Since those early salad days, it's become reviewer's sport, especially in The New York Times, to chide McGuane for not living up to early expectations, wrist-slapping his over-reliance on "quirky" scenarios, quoting easy-to-find examples of McGuane's acknowledged sentence-level mastery and sending him off with a condescending pat on the rump and instructions to try harder next time.
Part of this is surely because McGuane planted himself in Montana in the late 1960s and started training horses and setting his books in flyover country. But a larger part is that McGuane is a writer of not easily reconciled impulses. His two exceptional modes are almost-slapstick absurdity and lush depiction of landscape. He's a comic novelist with a penchant for corseted Victorian diction and a jones for rural vistas and the creatures of field and stream. It's not a combo critics look West for, and it can be jarring even to readers without geographical bias.
Plus, McGuane has perhaps too successfully become a character in his own right over the four decades of his Montana residence: a flint-jawed, silver-haired, cow-cutting family man, taking breaks from his decreasingly well received fiction for forays into increasingly well received nonfiction about horses and sport. Berl's seemingly random discourses on dogs, fishing and ranching are distractingly hard to credit to the ostensibly fictive narrator, given McGuane's own well-documented enthusiasms.
So it's a sloppy book and a not entirely convincing fiction. Fair enough. But if you discount all that, things turn interesting.
I don't think it gives anything important away to say that at the end of the book Berl regards a minor unsolved mystery as just that, "like everything else"—including, obviously, his own life:
"Perhaps after forty years in medicine I was trying to decide whether I wanted to be a doctor. I was close to retirement, and I hoped to work it out before then: such was my accustomed style."
Just for fun, replace the word "medicine" with "writing" and "doctor" with "novelist."
If McGuane is a writer of competing and not always compatible impulses, he's also had a doubly split career: wildman prodigy turned stolid elder, writer and ranchman. If Panama was the fictional autobiography of the first phase, then read Driving on the Rim as McGuane's meandering memoir of the second.
McGuane and Berl are both small-town Montanans of 40 years stature, and both retain their outsider's eye even as they hope to quietly fit in. If the autobiographical parallels are more purposeful than the plot, then Driving on the Rim is the veiled tale of a writer, even approaching the end, still trying to figure out who he is. That question—not its answer—is the promise McGuane continues to fulfill.