Imagine a career-spanning collection of work by a renowned author as a metaphor for a statue being raised in their honor. In the case of Thomas McGuane and his newly released Cloudbursts: Collected and New Stories, the statue would be one of those colossal figures that stands beside an important harbor or river. Most observers would look in awe at its size and try to grasp how the thing was achieved. Many would celebrate its grandeur as a hard-earned testament to consistent, dedicated skill and effort. But others will simply scratch their heads, shrug, and suggest, “It’s nice enough, but isn’t it a bit much?”
Cloudbursts is the first offering from McGuane since 2015’s excellent short story collection Crow Fair. It is an impressive work, especially considering that short stories are only one facet of McGuane’s significant writing output. He has also written 10 novels and a trio of eloquent essay collections devoted to his life in, and love for, the outdoors. He’s written for the silver screen. He’s even directed for Hollywood. And yet, the cynical book reviewer may still look askance at the brick-like Cloudbursts and pause.
By my reckoning, of the 45 stories in Cloudbursts, all but six already appear in one of his three previous collections: To Skin a Cat (1986), Gallatin Canyon (2006) and Crow Fair. Of those six, three were previously published in either McSweeney’s or the New Yorker. If my math holds up, that leaves only three truly new stories. It isn’t unusual for a short story writer to place work in magazines or journals before they are collected — and McGuane has ample clout to do so — but in this case, it might be a case of too much, too soon. The entirety of Crow Fair, for example, appears here, just three years after its original release. For longtime fans, a price tag pushing $40 is quite a bit to ask for, at best, six new stories.
That aside, there is some top-shelf writing here. McGuane has more than pulled his weight perpetuating — and skewering — much of the mythology of the contemporary American West. His stories overflow with oddball, troubled characters. The overwhelming majority of them are male, and suffer some manner of middle-aged ennui or existential trauma. Cowboys, ranchers or salesmen, tough guys or weaklings, philanderers or cuckolds; McGuane’s characters never take the easy road, even when it is clearly marked before them.
A flaw in his work — and this collection highlights it — is the lack of strong women in his narratives. When they appear, McGuane’s women tend to be foils for his men, or the source of manly dismay.
“Prairie Girl” is a notable exception. This tale of a prostitute-turned-banker displays all the hallmarks of a McGuane story: the twisted strands of adult relationships and the love that keeps them going, accompanied with warmth and a significant degree of wry humor.
For example, when Mary Elizabeth Foley attempts to ban her mother-in-law from the house she shares with her gay husband, Arnold, in the aftermath of his father’s death, Arnold insists they can’t just throw his mother “under the bus!” Mary Elizabeth is encouraged that such an option exists. It’s this kind of screwball, Coen Brothers-esque comedy that makes McGuane’s writing consistently delightful. Given the memorable protagonist of “Prairie Girl,” one wonders why McGuane hasn’t given us more women to cheer for.
Among the new stories, “Kangaroo” is particularly well done. It is the tale of a young man, Scott, who skips town while on parole and travels illegally across the state to claim his dead mother’s ashes. Howell is the tired yet hopeful overweight parole officer who pursues Scott to bring him to justice. The perspective in the story shifts back and forth between the two men, and we learn a bit about both as it unfolds.
There are many more memorable stories. Cloudbursts proves McGuane is a master of his craft. With this collection, it isn’t an issue of quality, but quantity. A slimmer volume of just the new stuff would be more satisfying. I accept that a 50-year writing career, with excellent works in both fiction and nonfiction, has earned McGuane the right to some padded offerings here and there. For newcomers, it’s worth it, because reading the man can be a delight. But for diehards, Cloudbursts may be too much to ask.