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Literary Analysis

On Thomas McGuane and 'Gallatin Canyon'
Paul Burga

When I first read Thomas McGuane’s "Gallatin Canyon" (in The New Yorker) I was baffled. Despite its straightforward presentation of plot and character, I was left with a "What’s wrong here?" feeling. On the second reading (in Best American Short Stories 2004), it dawned on me that the characters were acting strangely.
A third reading led me to an ineluctable conclusion.

I believe that the following synopsis, though selective and interspersed with my personal commentary, is a reasonably faithful depiction of what McGuane wrote.

The first person, nameless narrator (I’m going to call him Bob) wants to weasel out of an agreement he made to sell a car dealership. He plans to accomplish this by insulting the buyer, a small town businessman, thus making the rube mad enough (as Bob imagines) to storm, red-faced, out of the closing.

Not only is Bob’s plan odd, but even odder is that he wants his woman friend (they’ve had a relationship for several years) to be present as he carries on like a dishonest lout. It’s not like she’s a co-conspirator; at one point she says, "Why don’t you just let this deal close?... there’s a good-faith issue here."

We aren’t in Louise’s mind, but she comes across as passive and distant. She puts limits on the time she and Bob spend together. She had been married briefly, and during that period she developed, in her words, "doubtful behaviors" – such as pulling out her eyelashes and eating huge amounts of macadamia nuts. Her husband must have found the marriage stressful too; after their divorce he sold his pharmacy and became a mountain man. Anyway, she agrees to go along on this business trip.

To get to the town they take the Gallatin Canyon route. (Where, obviously, an accident will occur, since the canyon is described in the first paragraph as "too narrow" and on the second page we are informed that it regularly "spat out corpses.")

On the long drive these two show a conspicuous lack of emotional affinity. He thinks really hard about this matter. He is "powerfully attached to her" but she is withholding. "Though ours was hardly a chaste relationship, real intimacy was relatively scarce." He "adored her when she was a noun" but "was alarmed when she was a verb." Her hand drifts to rest on his leg and he reacts with the following thought: "my interest traveled to the basics of the human species." He feels an urge to "cleave" to her, "to build a warm new civilization." Suddenly he blurts out the words "I wonder if we shouldn’t just get married." Louise quickly looks away, leaving his comment unanswered. They drive the rest of the way – how long this takes it doesn’t say – in silence.

When they get to the conference room of the title company, Louise asks, "Shall I stay?" (Clueless Bob "intuits" her question to mean that she has not completely rejected his proposal of marriage.) He says, "Please," and gestures to the chair next to his.

When the buyer enters, he says to Bob that it was good to see him again. Bob answers, with "grotesque hauteur," that he didn’t realize they had ever met. The insults continue. Bob gets into this. "Like a Method actor, I already believed my part."

Louise shifts uncomfortably in her chair, then begins to observe Bob "open-mouthed." Under everybody’s puzzled gazes, Bob loses heart. He begins to backpedal. "I found no one who was interested in rescuing me – least of all Louise, who had raised one eyebrow at the vast peculiarity of my performance." He gives his head "a little twist to free my neck from the constrictions of my collar. I had performed this gesture too vigorously, and I had the feeling that it might seem like the first movement of some sort of dance filled with sensual flourishes and bordering on the moronic. I had lost my grip."

Bob capitulates, signs the papers. They leave the small town at night, and as they pass through a murky section of forest, they see the pale faces of children waiting to cross the road. "What are they doing out at this hour?" asks Bob. Louise answers, "I don’t know."
At this point, on the third reading, I did "know."
The pale-faced children are aliens. And so are Bob and Louise.

Why did it take me so long to realize what McGuane was up to?
Why did I twice overlook such an obvious prop as pale-faced children? Probably because the author has a reputation for serious work. And The New Yorker and BASS are bastions of literary fiction. No review I’ve read so far has brought up the alien angle.

Another factor that misled me is that McGuane’s aliens have advanced greatly from the ones in "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." In that movie the possessed spoke in an monotone, walked stiffly, etc. They had trouble being outwardly human. The aliens in "Gallatin Canyon" act normally. They hold jobs. They interact socially. I suppose, on their home planet, they have training sessions in which they are provided with books and films made by humans (Bob’s use of archaic words such as "chaste" and "cleave" indicates that the material provided for him was outdated). Of course, the bodies they inhabit function like real human ones
(most of the time; Bob did have difficulty with neck movements at the conference table).

However, the big obstacle for these present-day aliens is simulating human emotions, and in intimate relationships they are faced with a bewildering array of them. My initial "What’s wrong here?" feeling came during the car trip, when Bob and Louise’s inability to connect was glaringly obvious.

Some may have doubts about Louise being an alien. That’s because we’re in Bob’s thoughts, so he is the one exposed. Actually, this speculation about Louise is moot, because she’ll openly state, later in the story, that she has a peculiar inability.

If they are both aliens, why were they unable to "recognize" each other? The only answer is that they must come from different solar systems (McGuane leaves a lot for the reader to fill in). At any rate, after her revelation at the conference table, Louise gives Bob the frigid shoulder. Her mission on this planet must be to infiltrate human life, not waste time with another extraterrestrial.

Now the story moves to the climax that was so subtly foreshadowed. On the Gallatin Canyon highway a car suddenly closes in behind them, its beams on high. Bob slows down, but the car continues to stay glued to their bumper. When Bob pulls to the side of the road and stops, the car does too. Louise says two things: "This is strange" and "this is not normal."

Is an alien following them? Could be, since this is pale-faced children country. Why his hostile actions? Like I said, McGuane leaves a lot unexplained. Maybe the driver is just a human nut case. I can’t say for sure.
Bob, who knows this stretch of highway, devises a clever plan to escape his pursuer. He speeds up, goes through a sharp curve, turns off the headlights, brakes sharply, and pulls into a scenic turnoff. The car behind him shoots past, loses control, crashes through a guardrail and plunges into the river. Bob and Louise drive to the spot where the car went in; they observe the headlights sink into blackness.

Bob muses: "Any hope we might have had for the driver – and we shall be a long time determining if we had any – was gone the moment we looked down from the riverbank."

Sounds meaningful. But when you take a close look at the words, they display garbled alien thinking. If hope is gone, why should they be a long time determining if they had any? Anyway, how can you spend time determining if you have hope? I guess Bob is trying to grasp the human concepts he had learned in training sessions. The one regarding the sanctity of life, the one about guilt. He may be recalling movies in which people risk their lives to rescue other humans. Thus his confusion. He’s not aware that what humans write in books or put in movies is often nonsense.

As they stand by the broken guardrail, Louise cries out her revealing words:
"I wish I could feel something!"
Bob reaches out "to comfort her," but she shoves him away.

The ending of the story rises to true hilarity (it was only in my fourth reading that I was able to appreciate McGuane’s humor). Bob, still thinking Louise is human, tries to win her back. He learns more about the driver of the car, and here’s what he tells her, in three phone calls:
Ploy #1. The driver had a record as long as your arm. (A pretty good effort; but Louise exclaims "It’s not enough!" I think she needs to be recalled.)
Ploy#2. The driver was of German and Italian extraction. (What human, Bob reasons, wouldn’t be persuaded by that shocking revelation? I mean, German and Italian extraction! Still, Louise remains adamant.)
Ploy #3. The driver was from Wisconsin. (Louise hangs up the phone.)
End of story.
I’ve made my case; but, then, maybe I got it all wrong. You can judge for yourself. The story is in the 2004 Best American, which is most likely in your local library.

Actually, when reading a lot of the fiction that’s being praised and anthologized nowadays, I find that thinking of the characters as aliens helps to make sense of the work.
You might try that if you too have a "What’s wrong here?" feeling.

© Paul Burga - April 2007

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