The Life And Times Of Another Irving Berlin

It's been eight years since Thomas McGuane last wrote a novel that took readers on a journey through Big Sky country. That's the setting of his new novel, too. It's the tale of Dr. Irving Berlin Pickett, who's at once an earnest physician and a nincompoop. Host Liane Hansen speaks with McGuane about Driving on the Rim.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

It's been eight years since Thomas McGuane last wrote a novel that took readers on a journey through Big Sky country. His works, including "The Sporting Club," "The Bush-Whacked Piano," and "92 in the Shade," have earned him a place in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He also raises cattle in Montana, which is the setting of his new novel, "Driving on the Rim."

It's the tale of Dr. Irving Berlin Pickett, who's at once an earnest physician and a nincompoop. Thomas McGuane joins us from Bozeman, Montana. Nice to have you on the program.

Mr. THOMAS MCGUANE (Author, "Driving on the Rim"): Well, it's very nice to be here, Liane.

HANSEN: What is it that put your seat back into your writer's chair after eight years to create another novel?

Mr. MCGUANE: Well, I wasn't completely idle. I wrote short stories for most of those years. I published probably six or seven of them in the New Yorker and then collected them in a book called "Gallatin Canyon." And, you know, I'm getting older and the ranch is kind of demanding and there's not as much time as I'd like to just stay in and write. I don't want to be indoors anyway. So, I think I'm getting slower is the answer.

HANSEN: Yeah. "Driving on the Rim" is the story of a country doctor. His storyline goes from his childhood to his later years in a small prairie town. He's competent but he's just this side of crazy. Before we get into his personality, since you're also telling the story of a small town, was the doctor character a perfect way to kind of create the drama since he has to interact with everybody in the town?

Mr. MCGUANE: Yes. I think strategically that was part of the plan for this book. But also, you know, a doctor in a small town is the kind of royal figure. I mean, people never know when they're going to need him, so he's not ordinarily subjected to the usual moralizing that other members of the community are.

In addition to which, this doctor, though he's local to this town, comes from such an odd background. And, in my view, the apple always falls a long way from the tree anyway. So, I think I had a license to look at things from a pretty acute angle by having him as my protagonist.

HANSEN: Why did you name him Irving Berlin Pickett, I.B. Pickett or, as he likes to be called, Dr. Berl Pickett?

Mr. MCGUANE: Well, this has to do with the kind of fantasy patriotism of his born-again Christian mother. And all she ever knew about Irving Berlin was that he wrote "God Bless America." And I think she thought this was a nice way to launch her baby boy.

HANSEN: OK. Fair enough. He's grown up in this small place. Everybody knows everything about him. How did he get the reputation of being, in your words, a nincompoop? I mean, you talk about his somewhat crazy family, mother and father, but you also write in the book: Giving freaks a pass is the oldest tradition in Montana.

Mr. MCGUANE: Well, I think that's true about Montana. It's very different than other Western states because its mining and railroading and ranching history brought in people from very divergent ethnic and cultural backgrounds. So, people in Montana have had to understand people unlike themselves for a long time. And some of those people seemed very, very strange to earlier immigrants. So, I kind of sketch that in as giving freaks a pass because that's the way they viewed other people.

But he is a clueless kind of young people. He's a kind of Candide, you know, who, or Forrest Gump in some ways. You know, somebody who blunders around kind of self-propelled with unrealistic views of life and the future. I mean, his first and most unrealistic fantasy is the fantasy of getting rich, which is grossly inappropriate to the life he actually leads.

And so I'd like to think he emerged from nincompoopism, but readers will have to tell me.

HANSEN: It is interesting, 'cause even though they kind of look at him with a jaundiced eye, they still go to him for treatment. And he actually is a very good doctor. The conflict comes when he's accused of negligent manslaughter because people think he didn't do enough to save a patient, a woman he'd met as a young man.

And he's very conflicted about it, but he is actually guilty of encouraging another to commit suicide. And you let the reader in just a little bit, so we know what's going on inside the head of Dr. Berl Pickett but not the people in the town. And I wondered if the place itself is the real story.

Mr. MCGUANE: Well, yes. I think that is very largely the case here. And what I was kind of testing about the place through this protagonist was the question of what happens to somebody who's really driven by compassion. And it's sometimes misguided compassion.

But if nothing else, Pickett is an exceedingly and somewhat unrealistically compassionate person, and it leads him mostly to good places. It encourages the town to trust him and go to him for his services, but it also leads him down some dangerous pathways, some of them that are so marginal, like the encouragement of the suicide, as to challenge our ideas about whether or not we think he's on the right track or not.

So, that's one that I knew was headed for ambivalence and uneasy answers, but I thought that was a good purpose for this particular fiction.

HANSEN: Do you think Dr. Berl, as far as his relationships with women in the book, would you say he's a hopeless romantic or a horndog?

Mr. MCGUANE: Well, I think he's like a lot of men, especially these days. I think men are pretty unsteady about what their proper role is in romantic relationships. And this book is largely comic, so what strikes me as kind of funny about it is the sort of the war of the mind of the genitals seems to be at the heart of every male.

HANSEN: Well, you're a writer that has a really extensive vocabulary, because I'll often be reading a sentence in the book and run smack dab into a word that I've never seen before. So, I'm wondering, do you want the reader to go to the dictionary to figure out what you're saying or do you just fly over it and continue reading? My sentence here, and it's one that you can sort of get the meaning of, but it was about the sage brush turning thriving homes in tumuli T-U-M-U-L-I.

Mr. MCGUANE: Tumuli.

HANSEN: Tumuli.

Mr. MCGUANE: Oh yeah. Well, I had forgotten even using that. But tumuli is the plural of tumulus, and those are those, you know, if you go to Ireland, for example, you see those humps, those mounds, the burial mounds or Indian mounds - usually burial sites - those are tumuli.

HANSEN: Right.

Mr. MCGUANE: But that is pretty high-fallutin'. It's too late for me to substitute something simpler.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCGUANE: I might have been showing off, Liane.

HANSEN: Well, you know, I can understand you're a writer. Why not? If you know a word, throw it in there.

What's the season like on your ranch now? I mean, what chores did you have to postpone to drive to Bozeman to talk to us about your book?

Mr. MCGUANE: Well, things are kind of quieter. The last few years, we've only run yearling cattle, so we ship them in October. That makes life a lot simpler. And we have horses. Lots of our horses are really old and some of them are crippled, so we have a lot of caregiving for those, as well as the ones that we keep up in shod for riding and using on the ranch.

But this is the season - and we've just started this, 'cause we had this glorious autumn here; it was unbelievable. But just this week it's starting to be kind of wintry, and that has its nice side. Because at the 45th parallel, the days are long and sunshine's a lot in Montana. It's very hard not to be outdoors all the time. And you want to be indoors to read and write and do other things - watch football games - and now it seems more possible to do those.

And we'll wear that out. We'll put on a little bit of weight and then it'll be spring.

HANSEN: Thomas McGuane. His new novel is called "Driving on the Rim." And he spoke to us from Bozeman, Montana. What a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you so much.

Mr. MCGUANE: Oh, I had fun with this, Liane. Thanks for bringing me to town.

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