The Cadence of Grass
By Thomas McGuane
Knopf, 239 pp., $24
If the sight of a big, burly rancher beard: bushy and gray; eyebrows: piercing and black; hair: in curlers isn't your postcard picture of Montana, Thomas McGuane in The Cadence of Grass makes it one feature of his. But a cross-dressing cattle rancher's the least of it. Try modern Montana as shining example of the American West in the hands of, and down the tubes thanks to, the likes of one fictional, dysfunctional nuclear family, the Whitelaws.
"Sunny" Jim Whitelaw is the deceased: a bottling magnate in Bozeman who's not even in the grave and already his widow Alice is talking gibberish about some Alaskan cruise. Daughter Natalie, hard-bitten and fresh out of rehab, at least has a mind, but it's not on her late father either. It's on brother-in-law Paul, estranged husband of Natalie's sister Evelyn, who's got a mind too, and it's set on divorce. Who's stopping her? Sunny Jim! Seems his will stipulates that, unless Evelyn and Paul patch things up, the company's profits remain solely Alice's and not a cent gets into the hands of the rest of the family. Stuart, Natalie's unhappy husband, can live with that because 1) he's got a girl on the side to make him not so unhappy and 2) he hated "that goddamned cannibal" (Sunny Jim!) anyway. Paul, the plant's despised CEO and president, cannot live with that because sale of the company could wing him away from the hold of a father-in-law who cost him 1) time in the pen and 2) one kidney one night in Vegas.
Thank God, then, there's one man's man (no curlers!) in this picture: Bill Champion. What's he doing here? Acting, talking the Old West: riding the range, being a decent good guy, rounding up horses (on a ranch bankrolled by Sunny Jim and for good reason), taking in Evelyn, birthing calves, remembering his buddy Red Wolf, remembering the war in the Pacific, and, thanks to Paul and an unsavory Bengali (!) business broker, joining Red Wolf on this book's mystifying last page.
What's that page doing here? Running uncomfortably up against the absurdity of so much preceding it. And what's McGuane doing writing about roundups when what he's lost are his readers? Evelyn's right: "Men were always talking like this: you couldn't understand a thing they were saying."
A House Unlocked
By Penelope Lively
Grove Press, 221 pp., $23
From London, go west to west Somerset, to Golsoncott, home of Beatrice Reckitt (until her death in 1975) and her daughter, the artist Rachel Reckitt (until her death in 1995). Beatrice Reckitt's granddaughter, the writer Penelope Lively, spent time here too (when she wasn't growing up in Egypt) and spends more than 200 pages on it in A House Unlocked. And not only the house but its objects: the chest in the hall, the sampler in the drawing room, the gong stand, the Cedar of Lebanon in the garden, her grandmother's dressing room, the "night nursery," a painting, a silver "knife rest."
Mere rooms now empty and the mere objects that once filled an Edwardian country house? Yes but mostly no. In her preface, Lively calls them all "signifiers for the century," the house itself "a prompt a system of reference, an assemblage of coded signs" that "conjure up a story," that story being the past 75 years of English and European history. The private life of a house, then, "made to bear witness to ... public traumas." And those words, I assure you, are the last of Lively's theorizing. Her prose too closely adheres to fact, is too clearly raised to high polish to require this year's buzzwords as critical support.
What stories get conjured? Everything from England's class structure to the invention of the "picturesque," the building of the Great Western Railway, the evacuation of London's East End during World War II, the social seating inside a church, a Russian ex-pat's escape from Leningrad, an English horticulturist's escape from China, the debate over fox-hunting, the very notion of "childhood," and that ultimate taboo, that "personal affront" that "broke the spirit of the post-war middle class": doing the dishes.
Lively lived this world when it was coming to an end, one step in childhood, one step out by the time she reached Oxford, married, and started a family of her own. But if she keeps the nostalgia at bay, nothing can lessen her wonder at the functioning privately, publicly of such a place, as nearly a mystery to her as for us who hadn't a clue or the key.