His Carousing Days Behind Him, Author Tom Mcguane Is at Home—and at Peace—on the Range

updated 09/25/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/25/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Thomas McGuane drives his clattering five-horse trailer up to the barn of his 3,700-acre Montana ranch after picking up his mail in McLeod, a town with a post office and an old hotel. Pine trees scent the air and a river thunders nearby, but McGuane's solitude is hardly complete. In his corral stands a satellite dish ("the Montana state flower," McGuane calls it), and his publisher has just sent him a new copy of his seventh novel, Keep the Change, the tale of a muse-abandoned artist who quits his job designing lie-detector tests to work the family ranch. The glossy volume may look out of place in the author's rope-calloused hand. Yet it's not unusual for McGuane, 49, who has written and ranched in Montana for over 20 years, to win a rodeo competition on Saturday and find his fiction reviewed in the New York Times on Sunday. "I'm a neurotic fiction writer who'd like to be a cowboy," he says. After years of turmoil, he's at ease in both worlds.

This fall McGuane, his wife, Laurie, 40, and their daughter, Annie, 9, are settling into a new ranch where they raise cattle and horses. "This is the sixth ranch I've owned," says McGuane. "It's almost a justifiable commercial unit." The "new" house, rescued from beneath a layer of shag carpeting, is a striking, century-old log cabin. A converted bunkhouse functions as McGuane's study. Next to his computer sits a gun cabinet; on the porch are waders and a pair of nearly fossilized socks. The Boulder River, roaring 10 feet away, is so loud that McGuane must close his door when he writes.

But McGuane isn't writing these days; he's riding around with his ranch hands, discussing brood cows and Japanese investment in the valley. He's acutely aware of the choice between experiencing life and recording it. "That's my daily struggle—a mind-body struggle," he says. "I was always an extremist. I haven't changed."

McGuane was just shy of 30 when he electrified the literary world with his lush first novel, The Sporting Club, about a young man who wreaks havoc on a decadent hunting club. Saul Bellow declared its young author a "sort of language star," and McGuane has been shining ever since, turning out acclaimed novels with offbeat titles like The Bushwhacked Piano and Ninety-Two in the Shade. His stories crackle with mavericks who buck the system: men who rustle cattle with chain saws, do battle with automatic batting machines, smuggle emeralds sewn into horses. In McGuaneland, the boy never gets the right girl. "I like to write about the solitary things people do," he says. "Humans seem to function best when they're alone."

His own uneasy childhood may have fostered that view. McGuane was raised in Grosse Ile, Mich., the son of an auto-parts manufacturer. His home was filled with books, and his Irish Catholic father instilled in him a passion for the outdoors. Yet beneath the cultured veneer there was suffering. "I was scared of life and had to put on this game face because both my parents were alcoholics," McGuane says. "I always felt this smoldering pressure in my stomach. I never saw my father stumbling around or slurring words. He was one of those guys who drank five big drinks after dinner and had a serious mood change. He would paralyze the whole family. He'd turn and say, 'And you? What are you doing?' "

McGuane, now a stately 6'3", remembers being a "geek" as a teenager—"a 130-lb. weakling really having to keep from getting mashed." At 15, he ran away from home, following a girlfriend to her father's ranch in Wyoming. "I decided I wanted to be a cowboy," he recalls. "The negotiated truce was I would go to boarding school." At Cranbrook School, outside Detroit, he reverted to his original dream: becoming a writer. He flunked out of the University of Michigan but ended up on the dean's list at Michigan State. After a stint studying play writing at Yale Drama School, McGuane moved on to Stanford, where he won the Wallace Stegner fellowship for fiction.

In 1968, shortly after publication of The Sporting Club, screen rights to the novel sold for $75,000, and McGuane decided to try his hand at screenplays. He completed several, including The Missouri Breaks (which starred Marlon Brando), before getting a chance to direct the movie version of Ninety-Two in the Shade. "I said I didn't know how to direct a movie, but the producer said any idiot could do it," McGuane remembers. "I said okay. But I was right. I didn't know how to direct a movie." The film was a personal and financial disaster, one critic calling it "a homosexual porno film."

His cowboy dreams fared better. After the movie sale of The Sporting Club, McGuane moved with his first wife, Becky Crockett, and their infant son, Thomas IV, to a spread in Montana's Paradise Valley. Periodically, he abandoned monastic Montana for 90-proof nights in Key West, Fla. Soon he was running on a fast track with the likes of fellow Montanans Sam Peckinpah and Peter Fonda, careening around in fast cars after faster women, often in a state of booze-sodden lunacy. He was, by his own description, "a sociopath." Ultimately he would land a starring role in the 1978 autobiography of actress Elizabeth Ashley, who spared no detail of her sexual acrobatics with the married "aging juvenile delinquent...psychedelic cowboy."

"I had a spell no more striking than other people of my job description," McGuane says. "I did all the things you weren't supposed to do. I had a motto: When in doubt, try it. I went out and committed experience. But when I was supposed to be having such an endlessly wonderful time in the street, I was writing five screenplays a year. I don't have any regrets."

Nor, for a time, did he have a viable marriage. In 1975 Becky divorced him and married Fonda. McGuane in turn married actress Margot Kidder, with whom he has a daughter, Maggie, now 13. After a few months the Kidder marriage dissolved and he married his current wife, Laurie Buffett, a skilled horsewoman and the sister of his friend, singer Jimmy Buffett. Their wedding marked the beginning of a new, calmer era. It took place in a Montana courthouse with two of the couple's three children from previous marriages in attendance. ("We let them pick the wedding dinner," says McGuane with a grin. "You know what they picked? The A & W root beer stand.") A few years later, after a particularly gaga New Year's Eve, McGuane decided he'd had enough of liquor. Now all he drinks is nonalcoholic beer in chilled goblets.

Is McGuane's affinity for chaos a thing of the past? "Tom has to observe chaos," says Laurie. "But he has to write in an environment that is comfortable to him." McGuane admits he may not always contribute to that comfort. "I give people a lot of pressure," he says. "I can take this tone that you are fooling around while I am trying to write a novel. Laurie's great. She says, 'Take your novel and shove it!'

"If I have learned anything in life, it is that life is about choosing," says McGuane. Perhaps it is because he has grown older, or wiser, or both. But for him, the choices now seem to come easier. "Summertime in Montana I become a monosyllabic baboon," he says. "I want to ride with the cowboys, go to brandings, doctor cattle and train my horses. But in a few months the snow starts to fly, the days become shorter, the yellow color of interior light becomes delicious. I look at my shelves and every book just glows, and I want to be inside of that."

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