Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

"Unextended Selves" and "Unformed Visions": Roman Catholicism in Thomas McGuane's Novels

Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

"Unextended Selves" and "Unformed Visions": Roman Catholicism in Thomas McGuane's Novels

Article excerpt

Thomas McGuane's novels, short stories, essays, and screen plays place him among the best contemporary American writers. Reviewers have uniformly commented on his constant and redeeming wit in portraying suffering, alienated male protagonists, even though academic critics have neglected his work. For twenty-five years Thomas McGuane has employed a masterful range of language and comic imagination to write about these protagonists, adrift in a vulgar contemporary American culture, who are limited, furthermore, by their own "unformed visions" and "unextended selves."

Almost without exception, however, critics and reviewers have failed to notice that McGuane's topics, themes, and language are frequently, if not obviously, religious, and that McGuane belongs in the company of such writers as Walker Percy, Reynolds Price, and most notably Flannery O'Connor, as well as writers such as Jack Kerouac, J. P. Donleavy, and Robert Stone, all of whom in varying degrees explore fictional worlds shaped by their experiences with Roman Catholicism, whether broadly cultural or specifically liturgical. In a recently published interview with McGuane, Gregory L. Morris observes concerning the nearly invisible role of religion in McGuane's work that "You seem . . . to dismiss religion as a source of belief and affirmation in your work; religion is, in fact, scarcely visible in your fiction." McGuane responds that "I do have an inchoate pining for religion . . . In fact, I am very comfortable considering myself an Irish Catholic, implying, as it does to me, a superimposition of the life of Christ upon earth-worshipping pantheism." Despite the seemingly heretical yoking of Catholicism and pantheism and, in addition, recognizing McGuane's playfulness, this declaration should be taken seriously.(1) McGuane is like J. P. Donleavy and Jack Kerouac who, Paul Giles writes, "are by no means Catholic writers in any orthodox sense, but [who] emerged out of a culture of Catholicism that has continued to influence the shape and direction of their work" (394).

From the first of his novels, The Sporting Club (1969), to his most recent and seventh novel, Nothing But Blue Skies (1992), McGuane has turned repeatedly to generally Christian and, often, specifically Roman Catholic topics, themes, and language. In The Sporting Club, for instance, the novel's central, dangerous rivalry begins with the protagonist's statement that there is no God; and the novel's epigraph from Aristophanes indicates the central truth that if there is no God, then "Whirl is king." More peripherally, in the serio-comic Nothing But Blue Skies, the protagonist's hope throughout the novel is for the return of grace (his wife Gracie). The McGuane novels most preoccupied with religious subjects are, however, Panama (1978) and Nobody's Angel (1982), arguably his best, although reviewers savaged Panama and Nobody's Angel received a mixed reception. In these two novels McGuane elaborately explores religious themes, particularly the idea that his protagonists are in states of crisis that they, in some measure, have brought upon themselves by clinging to self-serving delusions while, at the same time, suffering from the victimization of living in a "fallen" and crushing American culture which offers them no succor. Chester Hunnicutt Pomeroy in Panama and Patrick Fitzgerald in Nobody's Angel, who are near spiritual death, are, by the novels' ends, minimally alive. While McGuane's protagonists have at best a limited grasp of its efficacy, the only alternative McGuane offers to spiritual extinction is a Christian existence. We can understand their desperate lives and marginally improved final states within the novels' persistent evocations of a Christian context larger than their own tormented lives and their culture's de-sacralized icons, whether in these instances rock-and-roll celebrities or Montana cowboys.

Chet Pomeroy is a burned-out rock-and-roll superstar notorious for outrageous stage performances. …

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