- Speaking Against the Dark:Style as Theme in Thomas McGuane's Nobody's Angel
"The family had now lived in this part of Montana for a very long time," declares the narrator of Thomas McGuane's Nobody's Angel,
and they still did not fit or even want to fit or, in the words of Patrick's grandfather, "talk to just anybody." They would bear forever the air of being able to pick up and go, of having no roots other than the entanglement beween themselves; and it is fair to say that they were very thorough snobs with no hope of reform. They had no one to turn to besides themselves, despite that they didn't get along very well with one another and had scattered all over the country where they meant nothing to their neighbors in the cities and suburbs. Only Patrick and Mary with her hoarding mind and their insufferable grandfather were left to show where they had been; and when they were gone, everyone would say in some fashion or another that they had never been there anyway, that they didn't fit. As for Patrick, numerous things were said about him but almost nothing to his face, and that was the only deal he cared to make.(104-105)
The italics are mine. I use them to call attention to an exponent that is ubiquitous in the novel: negation—of which there is more here than meets the eye. The "not" in the first sentence negates three verbs, not one. Having no roots is bad enough, worse when the only ones you have are entanglements. Furthermore, when the Fitzpatricks are gone, things will become worse still because "everyone" will deny that they existed in the first place.
McGuane's protagonist is one Patrick Fitzpatrick, a former army tank captain, who returns to his family's ranch in Montana in an attempt to make contact with his past, the land, and his grandfather and sister. He ends up making contact with Claire, the wife of an Oklahoma oil man named Tio. More to the point of the negation theme, he suffers from what he refers to several times as "sadness for no reason" and longs for a nonexistent girl of his dreams named Marion Easterly. The padlock on his line shack opens to a combination of four zeros, and "tops in mindless" is a recurrent complimentary description. The words "Please stop it" have been painted on mountainrocks, and when Patrick is out riding his horse, he rejoices mainly in the fact that the scene has "no booze or women in it."
Absence is everywhere in this book, haunting the present like a presence. Negation is stacked upon negation in a sort of continual regress, as Patrick and the reader slip deeper and deeper into something other than what it is. Just as he is about to make love to Claire, Patrick worries to himself about a quite literal form of negation: Claire's husband. Misinterpreting something Claire has said, he asks her if he should call her "baby." She manages to include three negations in a fourteen-word answer: [End Page 289]
"I didn't mean that. I wasn't calling you baby. That's not what it meant." She was naked now and Patrick awaited a bullet.
"I've got to hear what you meant."
"Last chance. . . . Am I going to get killed at this?"
"I don't see how. I'm not going to kill you."
Drawing this particular blank, Patrick, in mortal confusion, made love to Claire, who seemed, spasmodic and weeping, finally more martyred than loved. Patrick heard himself a mile off and incoherent.(223)
What Patrick could use more than anything else is a sense not only of belonging but of being. It is as though everyone in the book, but especially Patrick, is doomed to hearing himself from a mile off, not necessarily incoherent but not altogether there either—a condition expressed tersely in a joke Patrick hears in a bar. "I was born in 1924," someone says, apropos of nothing. "Here?" someone else asks. "Evidently," replies the native (12). But it is...