Excerpts of the Week: “The Bushwhacked Piano” by Thomas McGuane

by Adam Reger

Here debuts a new, marvelously simple blog feature, “Excerpts of the Week.” (Or “of the Day,” or “Month,” depending.) I’m terribly conscious that my take on whatever book I’m reading at the time is almost always “It’s really good” or some variation thereof. If I wanted to do book-blogging the right way, I’d take exhaustive notes and/or blog my profound insights as I had them. Seeing as how I don’t do either, a good halfway step would seem to be sharing portions of each book, the writing on which I’m basing my “It’s really good” judgment.

So, without further ado, the first installment. I’ve just started Thomas McGuane’s The Bushwhacked Piano. So far, um, it’s quite excellent. Very funny, which I guess is what I’d heard about it, but still the funniness has surprised me. The best description I’ve come up with so far is that it’s a slightly drier version of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, and perhaps more closely tethered to reality. Or at least, with characters who are less fully caricatures; there’s still a certain element of caricature in The Bushwhacked Piano. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, also comes to mind, although it’s written in a style that’s less fluid than Amis’s.

Anyway, two excerpts here. One that compelled me to laugh out loud, then return to the sentence to again laugh out loud, and then read it aloud to a friend: (By way of context, all you really need to know is that the main character, Nicholas Payne, is a bit of a cad.)

“Later, some entirely theoretical argument with the bartender ensued during which the bartender thrust his face over the bar at Payne to inquire how anybody was going to wage trench warfare on the moon when every time you took a step you jumped forty feet in the air” (27).

And the second excerpt, after Payne has tracked his beloved to the Montana ranch of her parents, the Fitzgeralds, who detest him:

“When sophisticated or wealthy women get angry, they attempt to make their faces look like skulls. Missus Fitzgerald did this and looked awfully like a jack-o-lantern. She was that fat” (107).

In both cases the humor is entirely unexpected, coming in at an oblique angle to the main thrust of the narrative. And both seem rooted in a kind of truth, if I can use that word: observations of people and the way they behave that ring true (at least to me). In the second excerpt the observation, about sophisticated women, is explicit.

In the first, the bartender’s behavior reads to me like a much broader characterization: of a certain kind of person who, during an absurd, hypothetical conversation, is too pedantic to let a piece of minutiae go. It’s a great piece of characterization of the bartender, and reminds me of a memorable craft tip I got once during graduate school: it really helps the overall work of fiction to occasionally imbue these sorts of non-essential characters—I could say here that the bartender, who isn’t given a name or a face, is making a “cameo”—with idiosyncratic and attention-grabbing traits. The idea is that the bartender’s trajectory only briefly crosses that of the main character, and to attribute to him these weirdly intense feelings about lunar warfare is to give the bartender a bright red flag whereby he announces that he has his own life, is on his own path, and in however brief or quiet a way he is not just a prop in the background of Nicholas Payne’s story. This sort of thing would get tiresome if repeated often—as tiresome as it is to be reminded, by strangers on the street, that they have their own deal and aren’t just extras in your movie—but every once in a while it serves to shine a light on the rich and textured “real world” of the piece of fiction.