Thomas McGuane’s An Outside Chance

I think I’ve admitted before that I seldom read for entertainment. It’s even rarer that I sit down and read a book of essays unless it’s been assigned for a class.

Thus, it’s not surprising that I’ve resisted reading Thomas McGuane’s An Outside Chance for over a year despite Mike’s recommendation.

No, the surprising thing is that I actually liked it after I got started. Not as much as poetry, certainly, but the reading was easy and the hours slipped by, and every once in awhile there was a real nugget, just waiting to be picked up.

McGuane covers a wide range of “sports,” from motocross, to golf, to, most importantly, fly fishing. But it’s obvious his heart lies with fly fishing and horseback riding.

The first chapter on fly fishing in the Florida Keys actually had me looking up fishing sites in order to see what kind of fish he was fishing for. His first chapter on catching the elusive “permit” ends with him finally getting his fish, followed by this startling insight into why fishing is so addictive:

I don't know what this kind of thing indicates beyond the necessary, ecstatic resignation to the moment. With the beginning over and, possibly, nothing learned, I was persuaded that once was not enough.

I was hooked with the very first chapter, but McGuane probably set the hook with a totally different approach in the second chapter, where he describes the Golden Gate Angling and Casting Club and makes the following revelation:

Still, it is difficult to imagine a tournament caster who would confess to having no interest at all in fishing-though that is exactly the case with some of them. Ritualistically, they continue to refer their activities to practical streamcraft.

McGuane obviously views casting as an essential part of fishing, and he seems somewhat bemused by these gentleman casters, but he still recognizes something “singular, more eloquent” about them practicing their art in the silent evening. Like most fishermen, McGuane spends considerable time fishing alone but recognizes that a fishing buddy is someone special:

We sit down in the skiff, drifting under the dome of unsoiled marine sky. Guy hands me a sandwich and we have our lunch, chewing and ruminating like cattle. We are comfortable enough together that we can fall silent for long periods of time. A flats skiff is a confined place and one in which potentials for irritation are brought to bear as surely as in an arctic cabin, but this comfort of solitude enhanced by companionship is the rarest commodity of angling. Pure solitude, nearly its equal, is rather more available.

Part of what makes McGaune’s writing exceptional is how he can easily move from the ordinary to the sublime, and right back again, a common feeling in those who enjoy the outdoors:

In a moment he is beside the boat, bright and powerful-looking. I take the pliers and seize the shank of the hook, and with a twist the tarpon is free, though he is slow to realize it. I reach down and hold him for a moment, and I sense in this touch of his ocean-traveling power almost a dimensional breakthrough. An instant later he has vanished.

Guy tells me it's my turn to pole.

Anyone who’s trekked to the top of a mountain and stood in awe of the view from the top but is soon overcome by the sheer exhaustion of his effort will recognize himself in these pages.

3 thoughts on “Thomas McGuane’s An Outside Chance

  1. I’m glad you found a way to connect with McGuane. Before you read him, I was not sure you would find the comments on flyfishing that compelling. He has even better stuff on that theme (in The Longest Silence, esp.) and his recent book Some Horses should pierce the armor even of poeple who think horses are just big dogs. McGuane could easily have turned into a pretty boy, the spoiled son of a well-heeled businessman. But he chose early on to make a life for himself in the big hills of Montana, and after some rowdy times with Jim Harrison and others, became a serious horseman. Apart from his work as a novelist and screenwriter, he’s in the cutting horse hall of fame. He may even be more proud of that. I met him once. I asked him why so many of the heroes in his novels are sociopaths (ie. guys who can’t love, believe in much, or stay committed. He shrugged and said, “We all have to be something.” (rest of this comment got lost)

What do you think?