The International Writers
Thomas McGuane and 'Gallatin Canyon'
I first read Thomas McGuanes "Gallatin Canyon"
(in The New Yorker) I was baffled. Despite its straightforward
presentation of plot and character, I was left with a "Whats
wrong here?" feeling. On the second reading (in Best American
Short Stories 2004), it dawned on me that the characters were
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
The first person, nameless narrator (Im 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 Bobs plan odd, but even odder is that he wants his woman
friend (theyve had a relationship for several years) to be present
as he carries on like a dishonest lout. Its not like shes
a co-conspirator; at one point she says, "Why dont you just
let this deal close?... theres a good-faith issue here."
We arent in Louises 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
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 shouldnt just get
married." Louise quickly looks away, leaving his comment unanswered.
They drive the rest of the way how long this takes it doesnt
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 didnt
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 everybodys 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 dont
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
Ive read so far has brought up the alien angle.
Another factor that misled me is that McGuanes 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 (Bobs 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
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 "Whats wrong here?" feeling
came during the car trip, when Bob and Louises inability to connect
was glaringly obvious.
Some may have doubts about Louise being an alien. Thats because
were in Bobs thoughts, so he is the one exposed. Actually,
this speculation about Louise is moot, because shell 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 cant 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. Hes 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
"I wish I could feel something!"
Bob reaches out "to comfort her," but she shoves him
The ending of the story rises to true hilarity (it was only in my fourth
reading that I was able to appreciate McGuanes humor). Bob, still
thinking Louise is human, tries to win her back. He learns more about
the driver of the car, and heres what he tells her, in three phone
Ploy #1. The driver had a record as long as your arm. (A pretty good effort;
but Louise exclaims "Its not enough!" I think she needs
to be recalled.)
Ploy#2. The driver was of German and Italian extraction. (What human,
Bob reasons, wouldnt 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.
Ive 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 thats 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 "Whats wrong here?"
© Paul Burga
email@example.com - April 2007
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