Driving on the Rim

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9781400041558: Driving on the Rim

From one of America’s most acclaimed literary figures (“an important as well as brilliant novelist”—The New York Times Book Review) a major new novel that hilariously takes the pulse of our times.

The unforgettable voyager of this dark comic journey is I. B. “Berl” Pickett, M.D., the die of whose uncharmed life was probably cast as soon as his mother got the bright idea to name him after Irving Berlin. The boyhood insults to any chance of normalcy piled on apace thereafter: the traumatizing, spasmodic spectacle of Pentecostalist Sunday worship; the socially inhibitory accompaniment of his parents on their itinerant rug-shampooing business; the undue technical advancement and emotional retardation that ensued from his erotic initiation at the hands of his aunt. What would have become of this soul had he not gone to medical school, thanks to the surrogate parenting of a local physician and solitary bird hunter?

But there is meaning to life beyond professional accreditation, even in the noblest of callings. Berl’s been on a mission to find it these past few years, though with scant equipment or basis for hope. Hard to say (for the moment anyway) whether his mission has been aided or set back by his having fallen under suspicion of negligent homicide in the death of his former lover. All the same, being ostracized by virtually all his colleagues at the clinic gives him something to chew on: the reality of small-town living as total surveillance more than any semblance of fellowship, even among folks you’ve known your whole life.

Fortunately, for Berl, it doesn’t take a village. And he will find his deliverance in continuing to practice medicine one way or another, as well as in the few human connections he has made, wittingly or not, over the years. The landscape, too, will furnish a hint in what might yet prove, if not a certifiable epiphany, a semi-spiritual awakening in I. B. Pickett, M.D., the inglorious but sole hero of Thomas McGuane’s uproarious and profound exploration of the threads by which we all are hanging.

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About the Author:

Thomas McGuane lives on a ranch in McLeod, Montana. He is the author of nine novels, three works of nonfiction, and two collections of stories.

www.tommcguane.com

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1

My name is Berl Pickett, Dr. Berl Pickett. But I sign checks and documents “I. B. Pickett,” and this requires some explanation. My very forceful mother, a patriot and evangelical Christian, named me after the author of “God Bless America”; so, I am Irving Berlin Pickett and well aware of the absurdity of my name. My father wanted Lefty Frizzell Pickett. That would have been worse. In any case, my very name illustrates the borrowed nature of my life, not easily denied. In fact, I’ve learned to enjoy my circumstances as I have moved among people trapped in their homes, jobs, and families—and their names! My esteemed colleague Alan Hirsch, mountaineer and cardiologist, calls me Irving, with a chuckle. When I first arrived at our clinic from the Indian Health Service, Dr. Hirsch told me that I couldn’t call myself a physician until I had delivered babies to ambivalent parents or taught the old to accept their grotesque new faces. I don’t know about that, but I do abide in the conviction that I’ve come a long way, and lately I’ve wondered how this all happened.

L. Raymond Hoxey bought an old mansion in Livingston, Montana, and converted the third floor into a delightful apartment with a view of the Absaroka Mountains. The second floor housed his print collection in archival conditions, with humidifiers and air-quality equipment. The first floor was divided into two smaller but still comfortable apartments, one of which was home to his assistant, Tessa Larionov, and the other, in summer, to a textile historian employed by the Metropolitan Museum in New York, who was also a trout fisherman.

The year the historian died, I was still in pre-med and painting houses to support myself; I moved into his vacated apartment. Acknowledging that there is a difference between being naive and being innocent, I will say that I was entirely naive. My parents lived a few miles away, but we weren’t getting along and I needed some distance, despite the fact that my mother was sick and often ranted about God. There are many versions of God around the world, but my mother’s was definitely a guy, and a mean one. Like many aspiring to study medicine, I planned to get rich but I wasn’t rich yet; I was just a poor house painter—out of work and looking for whatever came along—and despite all other evidence, I feared that I would be one forever, packing a great wheel of color chips from one indifferent house to another. I don’t mean to suggest mild insecurity here: by any reasonable standard, I was losing my mind.

Tessa Larionov was the daughter of a Russian engineer who had immigrated to the United States in 1953 and found his way to Montana, where he set up business building bridges for the railroad. His offices were in Choteau, where Tessa was born and grew up. Tessa’s mother was not Russian; her father had met her in New Jersey, where he first landed. She may have been Italian. Tessa was a powerfully built but attractive woman, with black hair, black eyes, and the look of a Tartar, wry and a little dangerous. She was liked by everyone who knew her. Trained in library science, she had worked as an archivist at some very august places, including the Huntington, in Pasadena, where she’d met her future employer and our landlord, L. Raymond Hoxey, who had let Tessa talk him into retiring to Montana to run his rare-prints business with her help. Hoxey was eighty-one years old, and his arrangement with Tessa was a means of avoiding assisted living. She was very fond of him and had wanted to go home to Montana, and so it worked for both of them. Tessa was exactly thirty, still single, though she had enjoyed an active love life, leaving in her wake only grateful hearts, or so she said. “They’re all still crazy about me,” she told me. “That’s why I left California.” Settling down was of no interest; she’d grown absorbed with the prints, and she wanted to keep her eye on Hoxey. I was twenty, but she treated me as if I were even younger—a salute to my retarded behavior.

My father had worked briefly as a pipe fitter for the Northern Pacific Railroad. In the course of corporate takeovers, the railroad had actually changed its name several times, but Northern Pacific was the one that stuck in all our minds. It meant something. Burlington Northern meant nothing. Then he had a little stock farm he liked to call a ranch, whose main purpose was to let him keep horses. But he lost it to the bank and went to work for the post office. My mother was a hairdresser and, because of her big mouth and religious mania, had enemies all over southwestern Montana and very few customers. During my childhood, they had had a traveling rug-cleaning business, and the three of us saw most of the West as we towed the steamer behind our van, an old-fashioned Steam Jenny with an oil-filled crankcase and a picture of a Vargas-type girl in black nylons emblazoned on its side—wonderful years, really. As an only child, I was all but homeschooled, then run back and forth between our house and the less fashionable of the two grade schools, before going to the local high school, where I was anonymous, never having been allowed by my overprotective mother to learn a sport. My mother joined one Pentecostal church after another, followed by my father, whose skepticism had long ago evaporated in the heat of her enthusiasm; they stopped just short of snake handling. But I liked to fish; I’d fish wherever there was water, and I fished in a lot of ditches where there was no hope of success. I now understand that I was for my age a weirdly underdeveloped human being, ripe for the sort of encounter I had with Tessa Larionov. Even my mother noticed my immaturity; she was always telling me, “Stop staring at people!” But she had once given me a gift beyond price: looking down at me when I was a little boy, she said, “You’re an old soul. You’ve been here before.”

It was Hoxey whom I got to know first. The day I arranged to rent from him, he happened to have received several Reginald Marsh prints, of which he was very proud and which he wanted me to see. I acted like I’d heard of Reginald Marsh. I didn’t know one painter from another, but I had a hunger for this sort of information; I felt it would be useful later, when I was rich. Hoxey was a pleasant old man who must have once been very fat, because he had loose flesh hanging from him everywhere and as many as seven chins. I always tried to count them while he was speaking to me, but then something in his remarks would break my concentration. This physicality, which bespoke a lifetime of phlegmatic living, gave his discourse on prints the authority of a weathered desert rat holding forth on cactus. I remember him carefully unpacking one of the prints—a kind of crazy thing with blank-faced people swarming in and out of doorways, none of them reacting to anyone else. Hoxey said that it was the calmest Reginald Marsh he’d ever seen. “No ‘Moonlight and Pretzels’ in this one!” he cried. I could see both that he’d be an agreeable landlord and that many health issues lay before him. As someone aspiring to be a doctor, I could make a little game of guessing which one would kill him.

Tessa asked me over one night for drinks. She had done a beautiful job of making her apartment habitable, with comfortable old furniture that she’d bought cheap and upholstered. She also had a good many of Hoxey’s prints on loan, though, as she explained, she was really just storing them, and her collection changed as things were sold from Hoxey’s inventory. She made a little face when she told me that she couldn’t afford to get attached to any of the prints, quite a trial for her, as she loved the art of all nations. Cocktails and art, I thought; maybe I’ll get into her pants. I’m sure that at the time I had a big goober smile on my face as I contemplated such an outcome. Tessa said I reminded her of Li’l Abner.

“Because I work upstairs, I’ve had to become a walker just to get outside,” she said, making our drinks in a blender. “You start getting curious about different neighborhoods—where the railroaders lived, where the ranchers retired, where the doctors and bankers lived. In the winter, when the wind is up, I have to tie a scarf over my face. Anybody you see in the street is ducking for a building, kind of like in the Blitz.”

As I waited for my drink, I found myself leaning forward in my chair with my hands pressed between my knees. It was only when she stopped to look at me that I realized my posture was strange. I pretended that I was just stretching and leaned back in an apparently casual but quite uncomfortable position. As Tessa came toward me with a brightly colored drink, both she and it seemed to be expanding, and when she handed me the drink I wasn’t sure I was strong enough to hold it. I felt suddenly that everything was bigger than me, that I was in over my head, trying to handle a situation which, when I was rich, I would take to like a duck to water. But things settled down quickly as soon as she returned to her seat, and I was then glad to have the drink because I was a bit cotton-mouthed. I had gone from my first impulse of getting into her pants to fearing that she’d try to get into mine.

I was not much of a drinker; water would have served as well. That summer I’d made an experimental foray into a local bar, feeling that I needed to learn to be more social. I struck up a conversation with a somber middle-aged fellow in a rumpled suit. He looked so gloomy that I regaled him with what I felt were uplifting accounts of my struggles at school. He stared at me for a while, until I sensed that all the timing was disappearing from my delivery. Finally he said, “Hey, boss, I got to go. You’re creeping me out.”

“Now,” Tessa said, “let&rsqu...

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