The Bushwhacked Piano by Thomas McGuane

A number of years ago, in a column in The Globe and Mail’s books section dedicated to great but forgotten books there was an article on Thomas McGuane’s The Bushwhacked Piano. Although I no longer remember specifically what the article had to say about it (apart from praising it), I do recall running out to a nearby second-hand bookshop and picking up a copy. But when I started reading it, I felt it wasn’t quite my cup of tea, as it were, and promptly set it aside. I also felt it was more artifice than art, plus a little too “Southern” for my taste, and went back to reading the kind of realism that I generally prefer.

But then a few months ago, you may recall, I read Colin Barrett’s wonderful collection of stories, Young Skins, which thoroughly entertained and inspired me with all those delightful sentences and surprising word choices, and I wondered if maybe Barrett was inspired in turn by McGuane’s similarly maximalistic prose style. And so I dusted off my old copy and went back at it.

I have to admit, though, that once again (and for the same reasons) I had trouble getting into the novel. At least at first. Generally, I look for writing that has more poignancy than fireworks, writing that’s layered in meaning and driven by character. Serious books, in other words. But I pressed on, thinking there was something medicinal about McGuane’s novel, and I’m glad I did. In his blurb on the cover, Thomas Berger describes the book as “a sumptuous feast of language and wit[;] The Bushwhacked Piano makes literary a joy rather than an obligation.” And he’s right; that’s exactly what this book is.

The story revolves around Nicholas Payne and his pursuit of the lovely Ann Fitzgerald, a young woman whose wealthy parents deeply oppose her dalliance with the nutty Payne. Tossed in the mix is CJ Clovis, a double amputee who partners up with Payne to build bat towers that would rid local communities of mosquitoes. But what the novel is really about, as Berger identifies, is language—lavish, resplendent language in which each sentence is not only a delight but also pure fun! Don’t get me wrong, though. This is not light and easy prose that the reader can passively gloss over. This is prose you need to work at. A dictionary, too, might be handy. Take a listen as Payne drives through Florida:

On either side, the serene seascapes seemed to ridicule the nasty two-lane traffic with monster argosy cross-country trucks domineering the road in both directions. From time to time, in the thick of traffic problems, Payne would look off on the pale sand flats and see spongers with long-handled rakes standing in the bows of their wooden boats steering the rickety outboard motors with clothesline tied to their waists. Then below Islamorada he saw rusty trailers surrounded by weedy piles of lobster traps, hard-working commercial fishermen living in discarded American road effluvia.
     In Marathon, a little elevation gave him the immensity of the ocean in a more prepossessing package—less baby blue—and he saw what a piss-ant portion of the terraqueous globe the land really is. (168)

This is typical McGuane at work, sentences that oblige the reader to sit up and pay attention and to also work at the co-creation of meaning; and in the end the pay-off is worth it. Look at his choice of words (several of which I had to look up). Instead of just saying “monster trucks,” he tosses in that majestic word “argosy” (a large merchant ship); instead of saying “stink,” he says “American road effluvia.” There’s also a Nabokovian play-on-words going on here. Instead of saying “insignificant,” he puns on the word “pissant” (which Microsoft Word doesn’t recognize as a word) and turns it into “piss-ant.” And then there’s that gorgeous word “terraqueous” (consisting of land and water).

Take a look, too, at the following sex scene between Ann and Payne, a scene that’s wonderfully un-sexy (even ugly in the post-coital sunset) and damn funny:

Once, for instance, they were on Payne’s little boat; he was in the cabin, adjusting the flame on the parabolic butane heater. Ann was on the bunk beside him, Payne in a Jesuitical hysteria of cross-purposes. Ann, clearly, prettily, waited for it. And Payne gave her one too, just like that. He looked underneath as he mounted her: a herring heaping from bank to bank, a marine idyll. Ann, for her part, should have never told him to hold on to his hat; because for an alarming instant he just couldn’t get going at all. She patted him with encouragement and told him we were a big boy now. She slipped her ankles up behind his knees. Payne felt as though he were inflating, becoming a squeaking surface that enlarged getting harder and paler, a weather balloon rising through the stratosphere, merely a collapsed sack at the beginning, growing rounder and thinner with altitude, then the burst and long crazy fall to the ocean.
     Afterwards they watched a Lake Erie sunset together; a bleached and watery sun eased itself down on the horizon and broke like a blister, seeping red light over the poison lake. They could even count the seven stacks of the Edison Electric Company. They smelled with affection the effluents of Wyandotte Chemical. They slept in one another’s arms on the colloidal, slightly radioactive swell. (21)

What makes McGuane’s work doubly impressive is that The Bushwhacked Piano was written in 1971, well before word processors existed and when using a paper dictionary or thesaurus was a much more time-consuming task than it is today. Like Proust and Nabokov with their similarly prodigious lexicons, the words that McGuane is able to wield is just astonishing to me, especially since he wrote the book when he was only 31. When I write I love using my computer's dictionary/thesaurus application. I never shut it down; and I'm always double-checking the definitions of words or plugging in synonyms that pack just the right amount of punch--simply because it's so easy to do so. But if I lived in a time when I'd have to endlessly flip through pages, I don't know how patient I would be. So I'm deeply inspired when I read someone like McGuane, and in an effort to enlarge my own vocabulary, here’s a list of some of the words I’ve had to look up and jot down in a notebook (a practice I started doing since I began reading Proust): grouse, glom, persiflage, majuscule, nimbus, despond, tawny, loamy, umbra, debouch, salvo, fleer, scrimshaw, wrack, loggia, equipoise, weal, flummery, vita, chine (i.e. a chine of beef), dido, lapis lazuli, gnomic, rara avis, terraqueous, pissant, simoleon, viscera, volute, involute, popinjay, flambeau, invidious, mufti, moxie, prate, and vitreous.

Some time ago, in my post on Denton Welch, I described being impressed by a simple line of his that went something like, “He turned away, shirking the difficult task of having to say something about the painting.” I was struck because I know if I had written that sentence, it would have been much more mundane: “He turned away, not wanting to say anything about the painting.” The former sentence (Welch’s) is what makes great writing great, what separates the masters from everyone else: the ability to elevate the most ordinary of actions and images into something extraordinary, fresh and new. It’s the kind of advice you often hear established writers give to emerging ones: that sentences—verbs especially—need to pop, sizzle, and sparkle. That’s what draws the reader’s attention—and involvement—into the text, making the act of reading a two-man (or woman) show, a co-creation, as I said above. That's exactly what McGuane does and what makes his novel such an absolute pleasure to read. Like Barrett’s book, The Bushwhacked Piano is another influential book that will be within easy reach as I work on my own stories for some time to come.