Thomas McGuane’s Cloudbursts and The Longest Silence
Reviewed by Daniel Clausen
Cloudbursts: Collected and New Stories | Vintage | 2018 | 556 pages
The Longest Silence: A Life in Fishing | Vintage | 2019 | 356 pages
Growing up in the West, I had a resentful feeling that the place was a bit ahistorical. Like Americans in the early 19th century, I vaguely thought we Westerners didn’t have “real” literature or much history. Oh there were the black hat, white hat westerns, and lumberjacks and gold miners, sure. But to a child surrounded by a culture that actively suppressed its own past, all that seemed like a romantic fantasy that had little do with the irrigated lawns of our cul-de-sac. The real history had happened back East—they had the Civil War, the Revolution. It was, of course, only the same contempt for the familiar that leads us to fail to appreciate our parents until we leave home.
Still, back then in the 1980s and 90s, bits of the adult world surrounding me in Idaho hinted at mythic proportions and struggles inherited from an unalterable past. These glimpses mostly came from family forays out of the city to the vast public lands and the small towns perched in their midst. Out there I saw battered ranch pickups at main street cafes. I watched faces weathered by both community gossip and drought go in and out of storefronts. I witnessed the kitschy towns full of wealthy tourists from out of state, and college kids working the summer as rafting guides. I didn’t think much of it then. The stories I read in the backseat weren’t about these people—they were about children in England or New York, or men and women on adventures a hundred years past, or hundreds of years in the future.
Those trips out of the city were often hunting or fishing excursions with my father and his work buddies. Hunting and fishing then was not what is now peddled by the mass retailers near interstates—what gear we had was not camouflaged nor did it sport a brand name. We were lucky when one of my dad’s friends brought a bird dog or a four-wheeler. The rifles and shotguns had been hand-me-downs or gifts from relatives—so far as I know, none were bought new, and each had a story or a personality attached. The tackle box was small, as were most of the trout. We still camped in the same canvas tent my father had grown up using in the 60s.
Had I discovered Thomas McGuane back then, my sense for those little Western towns and my empathy for their inhabitants would have been immensely enriched. Cloudbursts: Collected and New Stories gathers McGuane’s short stories going back 40 years, and many of them depict that same world I glimpsed as a child—mountain and prairie places full of character and story. Here in McGuane’s clean prose are those same hunting trips, bird dogs, and the personalities of Western and Midwestern people. And the stories stretch forward, keeping pace with the changing landscape and demographics. They are something like the Wyoming stories of Annie Proulx, if a little less fabulous and with a touch more masculine fantasy.
Like their settings, which aren’t limited to Montana and the West but stretch across the U.S. from the shores of the Great Lakes to Key West, McGuane’s stories can seem both expansive and quietly empty. Conflicts appear only gradually—thunderstorms on a distant, unimpeded horizon. But then the climaxes sometimes can only be seen rushing, catching the reader unaware and unprepared until it’s nearly too late.
The real subject of these stories, captured in winking and worldly prose, are communities and individuals dealing with fate, especially the fatal forces of global capital. Combined with human quirks of character in real places, these people reach back into history, and out toward the reader. The language is sparse, but clear, leaning hard up against the modernism of Hemingway. In fact, the influence of Hemingway is hard to overlook—both in the submarine motions of the short stories and in McGuane’s nonfiction accounts of fly fishing collected in The Longest Silence: A Life in Fishing.
Interestingly, it is the world of the fishing stories that seems somehow more implausible than the realist characters in the stories. If the fiction presents a world of individual people and places that seems to be slipping away as our attention is consumed by newsfeeds and commerce, the fishing tales reveal a fantasy of sorts: a masculine subcultural structured by something as seemingly leisurely as fishing.
Of course, one of the appeals of fishing stories is all the labor that is there for the narrating. The inherent architecture of a fishing experience lends itself to plot arcs: surveying a situation and setting, searching, casting, persisting, the climactic catch, and for McGuane, as most fly fishers today, the release of the fish back into its river or sea.
Yet even here the intrusion of modern capitalism lurks off stage. In reading these stories together, the strange combination of privilege and Bartelby-esque resistance to work that leads to month-long fishing trips emerges. While McGuane is not one of the “sports” who jet in and pay guides handsomely to lead them to trophy trout or tarpon, he pursues the same quarry. A discourse of authenticity, of uncommodified class, hovers over this vision of fly fishing like ephemeral clouds of mating mayflies. Competition, between fishermen but also over the meaning of fishing, tugs at the sentences: “During the emergence of the duns, I managed to catch several small but handsome and always mythologically perfect and wonderful brown trout.” This is not the sentence of a “grip-and-grin” social media influencer sponsored by companies out to sell fishing gear.
Since the rise of Instagram, fly fishing—like many photogenic hobbies and places outdoors—has seen an explosion of posing, posturing, and monetizing. Hashtags and geolocations have dramatically changed the way people fish, and relate to fishing. McGuane’s book is a catalog and defense of the old school. Fishing not as image, but experience. And though technological ease encourages confusion of the two, it’s the experience that motivates and grounds the attempts to monetize it.
Like one of his idols, his writing about fishing finds “intimations of immortality in fishing and along rivers where ancient human instincts encounter nature at its most profoundly cyclical and mysterious, where human behavior is so clearly a part of nature, where our detachment, even from the brevity of our own lives, is consoling.”
McGuane, like the rest of the men in his sporting circle—from Tom Brokaw to Yvon Chouinard—may be easy to criticize for the apparent hypocrisy in their privileged sporting environmentalism. But in these short stories and his memoirs of fishing, McGuane models a love of the world and its inhabitants that has the power to inspire and enchant readers—and perhaps help them fall in love with that same world. And these days, of course, every little bit helps.
Daniel Clausen grew up in Idaho, and has also lived in Oregon, Nebraska, and Austria. He is currently visiting assistant professor of English at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, where he focuses on American literature and the environment.