(1) A bona-fide American freak tooling across country in a green Hudson Hornet hotly pursuing (2) a darling little millionairess who thirsts for "real experience" (3) teamed up with a double amputee, the world's fastest talking con man with a scheme to build bat towers for day-glo bats that can rid any area of insects "practically overnight." And you'll understand why The Bushwhacked Piano has been acclaimed from reviewer to reviewer!
Dizzying and often hilarious, The Bushwhacked Piano veers between Schopenhauer and slapstick, vintage cinema slang and literary send-ups, with barely a breath to catch. On the sentence level it's deeply impressive, Pynchon on laughing gas, and the wild set pieces revolving around bat towers, wig banks, rodeos, and peeping toms retain a madcap cartoon exhuberance. Not to mention a scene of hemorrhoid surgery that you won't forget no matter how hard you try.
The novel is partly a cultural dissection of America circa 1970 and that aspect hasn't aged as well. The savage way McGuane portrays the affluent set as grotesque gargoyles probably had real bite at the time, but we're so deep into the heart of darkness now that the critique feels obvious. Every character is highly dubious, excepting maybe the bats, so there are no real attachments to form. Ultimately this gonzo work is less serious than, say, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but it's worth the ride if you're looking for high-octane prose and bizarro Americana antics.
It's amazing how pointless my life seems when I'm trying to make myself read a book I don't like. Reading a really bad book can be kind of fun, as I like to mentally catalog all my complaints in preparation for writing a scathing review. But I didn't have that sense of purpose here. I just kept thinking, again and again, "what?" I guess I just didn't get it. There were whole paragraphs and conversations that I couldn't connect to the story, and there were dozens of allusions that went way over my head. The main character, who I'm assuming is supposed to be sympathetic, just came off as really high all the time or maybe actually insane. In fact, all of the characters and their interactions with each other seemed totally unnatural. I just couldn't put two and two together. I had no idea where the story was going. I didn't know what to think, and that's why it took me over a week to get through a mere 220 pages. There were a few clever devices that I caught on to, though, and I could see the humor from time to time. But I just hated feeling stupid and confused. Critics loved this book; maybe it made more sense when it was published in 1971. Or maybe I'm just not smart enough to appreciate it.
The last and only McGuane I read was back in July 1990. I remember it well since I was in Kentucky and my second daughter was born while reading. It was a hot summer, and I was a younger man, but I will never forget it. Perhaps I’ve changed, this book was quite experimental, cleverly conceived and no doubt unique for its time. It had notes of Hunter S. Thompson, Harry Crews, Barry Hannah and Jim Harrison. The protagonist, Nicholas Payne, is clearly disturbed and we get to know him through the array of characters he encounters. There is not a normal person in this book, and it is a reflection of the late 60s with generational conflict thrown into an often nonsensical road trip as our protagonist plows through a rather bleak, but often hilarious, fragmented America.
I must admit I did not understand the writing technique, but once I got into the groove the plot became comprehensible. It seemed that McGuane might be showing off a bit, and the lack of any kind of moral compass in the characters was disturbing. But I can’t fault the author as I know such people exist, and his skill in character development and stream of consciousness type writing was remarkable. It read like a long disjointed poem in some ways. The plot was absolutely ridiculous, starting in Montana and ended implausibly in the Keys of Florida where he partnered with a double amputee, debutante in tow, and the last chapter a long, detailed, lovingly rendered medical expose of a hemorrhoidectomy. The plot was just illogical and nuts. For this I must render it 3 stars, as the overall reading experience was compromised. But the fevered brain of the protagonist yielded some delights. Some samples:
p. 84: “Unbeknownst to Payne, a rare blackfooted ferret, which to a colony of gophers is somewhere between a C.C. Ryder and Stagger Lee, darted from its lair and crossed County road 67 between Rainy Butte and Buffalo Springs, North Dakota; not far, actually, from the cedar, which is the south fork of the Cannonball river. This rare tiny savage crittur came very close to being (accidentally) run over by C(letus) J(ames) Clovis, the round/man of total bat tower dreams, who pressed Westward in his Dodge Motor Home. “
p. 105: “Payne turned the radio dial irritably, getting only British rock music. It maddened him. What a smutty little country England had become, exporting all its Cro-Magnon songdodos, its mimsy, velveteen artistes. Payne wanted Richie Valens or Carl Perkins, and now. “
Listen, I know Thomas McGuane was one of the "it" celebrity writers of his generation, and considered a "monstrous talent" according to the quote regarding McGuane on the back of the book cover, but I have to admit- I just don't get it. I want to get it. I tried to get it. But I just don't get it. A few years ago I heard an interview with Rob Long, a veteran television comedy writer and producer (he worked on Cheers among others) and after speaking about his comedic influences - most of them from early days of television - the interviewer asked him about The Three Stooges. Long's answer was "that's music I don't hear." I feel the same way about McGuane. I read The Sporting Club several years ago and finally plowed through The Bushwacked Piano after a couple of false starts, but to me his writing is like mid-70s jazz-rock. Loads of directionless wanking around before hitting with a great line here and there, then another long stretch of overwrought noodling all while the drummer is haplessly flailing about with no concept for rhythm or structure of any kind. Of course, all the high-fallutin' critics "get it", but I guess a dum-dum rube like me in Hillbilly-land doesn't have the erudition and heightened sense literary style to delight in a multi-page description of a hemorrhoid surgery or florescent orange bats. But what do I know.
McGuane's style takes some getting used to and he has a penchant for using obscure words, but he's very clever, offbeat and funny. The style and lack of plot means this won't be for everyone, but for those who like their literature "out there", this is highly recommended - especially if you've ever wanted to read a detailed description of a hair-raising haemorrhoid operation, in which case this is definitely the book for you!
A vagrant/poet/lunatic builds a bat house, woos a woman, gets into trouble. Something like if Charles Portis wrote Adventures of Augie March. Very funny, very sharp, the language is that sort of crooked which is a pleasure to unwind. I'd never heard of McGuane, which, based on this at least, is an injustice I feel keen to rectify.
McGuane is an interesting case. His 92 In the Shade was excellent in my opinion, but I think that book his peak in terms of displaying his talent. While the Sporting Club shows glimmers of brilliance, it does not really deliver, which is certainly acceptable for a first novel. Followed by 92, his sophomore effort is fantastic. With this, his third effort, you begin to see him overstepping his own bounds and while there are terrific moments (the chapter of him bull riding to impress his love is hilarious and could have stood out as a very good short story), overall, this book is disappointing. Clearly after this book, McGuane took a completely different tack in his writing, and I don't think he was ever the same.
If you've never read McGuane, 92 In the Shade is probably the only one really worth reading. This would be a second choice, but there is a large gap between the two.
The description given to this book is actually an abbreviated statement by William Hjortsberg:
"...makes me think of all four Marx brothers mounted on an attenuated bicycle, out of control the wrong way on a one-way street, against the mainstream of oncoming traffic; no hands, ma, and no brakes! Thomas McGuane can only be imitated. There's no one else around who come close enough for comparison." William Hjortsberg
rara freakin' avis right here: a book compared to pynchon in reviews that actually has somewhat of a t-pynch thing going on. the painted bats... the hemorrhoid surgery... the prickly conversation at the boot store... the other reference point here for me is douglas woolf, if you stripped out all the amiability with lacquer thinner & replaced with an equal amt of irascibility. woulda made a heck of an altman film too. (research question: this and fear & loathing came out the same year... which was 1st to use the phrase "bat country"??)
at the opening: i was ENAMOURED with the quick-fire, delectably constructed visual moments and the way he draws the States in its actual glaze of weird-wonderful-horribleness:
"And California at first sight was the sorry, beautiful Golden West silliness and uproar of simplistic yellow hills with metal wind pumps, impossible highways to the brim of the earth, coastal cities, forests and pretty girls with their tails to the wind. A movie theatre in Sacramento played 'Mondo Freudo'. In Oakland, he saw two slum children sword-fighting on a slag heap. ... one chilly evening in Union Square he listened to a wild-eyed young woman declaim that she had seen delicate grandmothers raped by Kiwanis zombies, that she had seen Rotarian blackguards bludgeoning Easter bunnies in a coal cellar, that she had seen Irving Berlin buying an Orange Julius in Queen's." (p.14)
it sagged toward the end for me -- i know the hemorrhoids are thematically relevant, but yeah. slow -- and yet the end (especially Ann's fallout) was eventually worth it. it's hilarious at moments, chaotic and impenetrable at times, but hey - so's my homeland.
The story of an eccentric wonder boy written by a real-life eccentric wonder boy who eventually got his act together, moved West, and wrote some wonderful essays about the outdoors. Beating up on this book is needless; I always considered it an accidentally successful piece of juvenilia rather than a sign of emerging literary talent. It's a Pynchon knock-off but way less charming than The Crying of Lot 49. I only review it here because McGuane's career trajectory reminds me so much of Jonathan Safran Foer's - after early success writing novels that did little more than let readers know how smart they were, both pursued more substantive and honest forms of non-fiction. McGuane is admittedly a great stylist and there are passages that you will underline out of admiration; whether you complete the book is another matter.
This is a really slow and laborious read - you need to be a walking dictionary to follow what’s going on, such is McGuanes insistence on being deliberately and unnecessarily verbose. I stuck with this the whole way through and its not all bad - the story of crazy dude Nick trying to win over his chick Anne’s folks and make a living building bat caves with some crazy amputee hick is passable. The two stars are for some really great and smartly humorous sentences McG drops in his yarn but these punctuate an otherwise average text and I certainly wouldn’t put myself through it again.
Quirky and busy, this is a novel that will either pull you in from the beginning or never quite catch your interest. Simply, it's rather what would happen if Dennis Johnson were to work at capturing the most mundane and unlikable of characters, and with a focus on the ordinary details rather than the spiritual or emotional ones which might engage a reader anyway. There are some interesting moments, to be sure, but nothing at all to really engage a reader in the future of the plot or the characters, or drag one back for more from McGuane. Nothing I'd recommend, I'm afraid.
Thomas McGuane knows his way around a sentence. Driven mainly by manic action, practiced insouciance and cool swagger, this rollicking novel follows Nicholas Payne on a journey through America circa 1970. With the energy of a beat poem, McGuane raises the sad sack American male to a vaulted and sympathetic place. While his characters rarely bear the remotest similarity to myself, they consistently reveal universal truths about the American male psyche that resonates with one’s sense of self.
McGuane is a very talented writer, with sentences and a vocabulary that are bound to impress even the most critical of readers. However, with his technical expertise comes a lack of compelling characterization or plot, making this novel nearly unreadable. After reading and enjoying Panama, I had high hopes for the remainder of McGuane's bibliography. This being my next stop, I am left highly disappointed.
it is a sad story about a guy trying to find where he fits, but the writing is incredible. the words put me right on the page, right in the arena, right foot, left foot. i could not wait to tuen the page for what words i would see next. imagine floating down a river. easy, yet some bumps. 1971 220 pgs 9 other books to find
Might have enjoyed it more in my early 20’s; this novel has not aged well, much like I imagine Payne has not…
“..a turn of his or against the bottom brought up a blue whirring nimbus of petroleum sludge and toxic, coagulant effluents the glad hand of national industry want the kids to swim in. This was water that ran in veins. This was proud water that wouldn’t mix. This was water whose currents drove the additives aloft in glossy pools and gay poison rainbows. This was water the walking upon which scarcely made for a miracle.” P.16
“I’ve smiled through any number of months of your aimlessness, punctuated only by absurd voyages around the country on motorcycles and trash automobiles. I just find the Rand McNally approach to self discovery, a little misguided. I want you to know that I won’t let you lie doggo around the house, awaiting another one of your terrible brainstorms. My rather ordinary human response has been to resent, having to go to work in the face of all that leisure . I, of course, stupidly, imagines this leisure had not been possible without my going work.” P.38
“It wasn’t that he wanted winter. He wanted to get his white Christmas off a bank calendar.” P.81
“Somehow the whole beastly building started the bulge, starting to throb. And he dropped his briefcase through the skylight. A file clerk looked up at him through the hole. And Payne saw that it was better to be looked up at through the hole, crazy as you were, then to be a file clerk looking.” P.82
“A famous man says that we go through life with a diminishing portfolio of enthusiasm’s; and these, these, these children, these, these these, these little children will soon not be able to feel this way about anything again.” P.111
Picaresque adventure of Nick Payne, a privileged, adventurous, disreputable young man enraptured with the romantic potential of life in America. He is in love with Ann, a similarly romantic young aristocrat named Ann Fitzgerald, who nonetheless holds things at slight distance in order to better photograph them. Her interest in Payne is substantial but also fickle -- she loses interest around the time his fortunes take a dip (though Payne, too, is guilty of wandering off now and then). The distinction between a romantic, heedless man and a more business-like, rational woman recurs in McGuane's stories, and this book exemplifies it.
The plot is a ridiculous farce, mostly just scaffolding to hang some really hilarious scenes on top of. Payne wants Ann and then he gets her; he also builds bat houses for a double amputee named Clovis, which eventually leads to them running out of steam in Key West, where Payne has a brutal surgery; things with Ann end. The bit where the main character tries to be a rodeo rider is one of the best, and the breathlessness and excitement contrasts nicely with the snobbish, pedantic tone Ann's other beau George takes when viewing bullfights.
If you want a good sample of McGuane at his best, I strongly recommend the brief and entertaining Chapter 6: "The strapped muscle of Ambulance's haunches kept jumping suddenly at the movement of hooves cracking invisibly against timber underneath."
You could object to this book on numerous grounds: lots of offensive language, a fairly pointless plot, some of the showpiece sermons/manifestos from Payne are kind of boring nowadays, but it's still a quick, exciting and beautifully written book.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
The Bushwhacked Piano reads somewhat like Pynchon, but the prose is easier to follow and the politics are less overt. McGuane is a masterful writer who comes up with inventive, stylish language on every page, and straddles the line between reality and farce without ever letting you know which mode dominates the narrative. The book essentially skewers the hollowness of the guiding systems of the American 20th century (politics, class, business, aesthetics, Protestantism, family values, etc.), all wound into the delirious psyches of cross-country vagabond Nicholas Payne and his privileged lover Ann Fitzgerald, as well as the assortment of rivals, associates and family members caught in the vortex. This was an immensely enjoyable novel that fans of the 60s/70s literary "avant-garde" (for lack of a better term) will not want to miss.
Funny scenes, visuals and characters but this was not for me. It felt like dollar words were sprinkled in senselessly. There were points where I felt completely lost at how abruptly the story shifted. It felt jarring and maybe that's the point but it left me having to reread those areas over and over to make sure I didn't miss something. Overall it was ok. Not quite enjoyable but I didn't hate it or get lost in it
I love language and silliness and snide, but if I can’t care about the characters or the story, I need to at least be able to care about the author: does he have anything to say? Is there an emotional or intellectual backbone that I can connect with? In this case, I think not.
The least readable and coherent McGuane book I have read. The story - not that there is much of one never really goes anywhere. This may have seemed different or clever in 1970 when it came out but now it is just boring. It screams from the author let me show you how smart I am.
After reading about 10 pages I had to flip to the middle of the book because I thought there was no way any idiot could keep up the bullshittery pretentiousnous for a whole novel. It looked like I was wrong so bailed.