Worn tires, worn lives go a long way in Montana

Book review: "Driving on the Rim," by Thomas McGuane. Knopf, $26.95.

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"Driving on the Rim," a title that puns on an Oldsmobile Rocket 88 (this one never does much but run on gas fumes) and its Montana setting is the story of how Irving Berlin "Berl" Pickett, son of an agnostic ex-soldier and a Pentecostal mother, comes to lead his life instead of being led by it.

Berl is victim, hero, maybe or maybe not a killer, a fool for love, bushwhacked by man and nature alike, a fine doctor, a default house painter. All those elements keep him driving on the rim -- with emphasis on driving.

Some might say Thomas McGuane ran out of gas capping this twisty fiction. I say he brought Berl down to peaceful earth; it was about time, and it's satisfying. At the same time, the ending feels a bit rushed, particularly the back story of shady pilot Jocelyn Joyce, one of Berl's two key women.

Still, Mr. McGuane can spin mood on a dime, writing humorously in half the sentence, tragically in the next half. I particularly like how he wove the courtly romance of Berl and fellow doctor Jinx Mayhall (the other key woman) through the book. Berl tries to keep his fix on the "cheese ball," his unsatisfying but realistic view of the American Dream:

"The cheese ball consisted of a building known as the home, the transportation equipment, the sustenance gear including heating and cooking facilities, the investments and liquidity that kept the cheese ball from rolling backwards and ruining its owners; then, in most cases, the eventual collapse of the agreement that had generated the cheese ball in the first place ..."

The author fleshes out Berl through his relationships with lesser eccentrics in the Big Sky Country town in which he cuts the definitively eccentric figure.

Berl is a sexual, if haphazard, opportunist, learning the moves from his aunt when he was 14 and conducting affairs with other residents (his ambivalence toward the emotionally outsized Tessa Larionov gets him in deep hot water).

As a doctor, he holds a clear-eyed view of life and death. One of the concerns of this superficially breezy book is assisted suicide, in both Tessa's case and that of Cody and his wife Clarice, he the beater, she the beaten.

Seriousness, however, never dominates Mr. McGuane's bright, intelligent style. He is remarkably quotable, his characterizations spot-on. Here, Berl ponders Clarice as she fiddles with her purse:

"I looked away as I always did when women's purses were opened. I always felt they contained things it would be improper to see. The contents were so baffling as to be sometimes downright scary, as was the witchlike way their owners found things in the chaos."

Such self-perception and self-consciousness speak to Berl's needs and immaturity. They attest to a shyness that governs his relationships with Jinx and Jocelyn, both strong-willed, independent women but wildly different.

Where Jinx is ethical and centered, Jocelyn, buttressed by her marvelously reptilian henchman Womack, is exploitative and manipulative, qualities that attract Berl like forbidden fruit.

Ultimately, however, Berl comes to value the "cheese ball," allowing Mr. McGuane to end this engaging folk narrative on an upbeat, pastoral note.

Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer from Cleveland.


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