A Montana patriarch's death provides the impetus for Thomas McGuane's new novel, The Cadence of Grass. From this starting point, McGuane (Nothing but Blue Skies) explores family ties and cycles of change, producing a plentiful yield of humor and insight.
Sunny Jim Whitelaw's widow, Alice, wishes to collect herself; his daughters share more complicated desires. For Evelyn, it could be a sense of peace, either through ranching or simply being alone. Natalie, however, wants to secure a luxurious lifestyle and figure out how to dump her unexciting but loyal husband.
Naturally, Alice is provided for in Sunny Jim's will. The children get nothing unless Evelyn reconciles with her just out of prison husband Paul (whom the will surprisingly installs as president of the Whitelaw bottling plant). Only then can the business be sold and the proceeds dispersed.
The Cadence of Grass portrays the ensuing tug of war. On one side are the strange bedfellows (literally and figuratively) Paul and Natalie; on the other, Evelyn, still drawn to her roguish mate but yearning to cut the cord. It's a small story in scope, yet chock full of satisfying nuggets of wit and wisdom. McGuane's prose combines a certain poetic elegance with droll understatement.
One particularly engrossing aspect of the book is the attention McGuane devotes to the rigors and toil of modern ranching. It's a business fraught with difficulties, amid the vicissitudes of weather and the marketplace. Still, the appeal especially for Evelyn is made real and immediate. (Paul, typically, views cattle as a nonperforming asset. ) McGuane's novel contains some rather surprising twists, including a suicide and a stunning act of revenge. There is an abiding hopefulness, though, embodied in a character like Bill Champion, the Whitelaws' ranch manager. Evelyn muses that the elderly man's improvements to the property cattle, building and fences were stays in the face of general impermanence, even as they couldn't possibly last.
This is the core, one might say the horse sense, of McGuane's brief but enjoyable tale.
Harold Parker writes from Gallatin, Tennessee.