Synopses & Reviews
Sunny Jim Whitelaw, a descendent of pioneers and owner of a large bottling plant, may have died, but he has no intention of relinquishing control: his will specifies that no one gets a cent unless his daughter Evelyn reconciles with her estranged husband, Paul. But Evelyn is a strong-willed woman, fiercely attached to the land, whose horses transport her to a West she feels is disappearing, while Paul is a suave manipulator, without scruples, intent on living well.
As played out on the majestic stage of Montana cattle country, the ensuing drama involves blood, money, sex, vengeance, and a cross-dressing rancher. The Cadence of Grass is renewed evidence that McGuane is one of the finest writers we have, capable of simultaneously burnishing and demolishing the mythology of the West while doing rope tricks with the English language.
A novel of blood, money, sex, and chicanery set in Montana cattle country.
Ten years after his last novel McGuane returns to the form with a sulfurously funny yet genuinely elegiac tale of blood, money, sex, and chicanery set on the majestic stage of Montana cattle country.
About the Author
Thomas McGuane lives in Sweet Grass County, Montana. He is the author of eight previous novels and a collection of stories, as well as two collections of essays.
Reading Group Guide
“Darkly fiendish, wildly unsettling, and viciously good.” —Mens Journal
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your groups reading of Thomas McGuanes The Cadence of Grass, his first novel since the bestselling Nothing but Blue Skies. In The Cadence of Grass, McGuanes trademark combination of high wit, low behavior, and hard-won wisdom has never been on sharper or more moving display.
1. What kind of person is Paul Crusoe? Is he likeable, charming, and funny? Or is he repellent and predatory, even evil? What does he ultimately want from the bottling plant and from the Whitelaw family? Why is Evelyn drawn to him despite the fact that she perceives that his soul is “rented to darkness” [p. 129]?
2. Paul suffered a blow, were told, “in sixth grade, when his mother told him the disturbing story of his conception involving a father she described as little more than a worthless stranger, an all-consuming vacancy that suddenly gave his young life a cartoonish quality complete with flying faces, dither, interruptions and babble. He also missed the God that had been described in his small-town grade school, a terrible old tyrant who seemed to demand all the wheedlings and importunings mankind could send his way” [p. 28]. To what degree does this information—and his later meeting with his father [pp. 143-48]—account for the apparent lack of both conscience and purpose in Pauls life?
3. How does McGuanes inclusion of bizarrely comic events—such as Evelyns night in the snowstorm and her rescue by Donald Aadland [pp. 87-105] or Pauls waking up in Las Vegas to discover a neat row of stitches across his abdomen [pp. 122-25]—affect the readers sense of reality in the novel? Does it seem that in McGuanes comic world, a more manic, skewed vision of life is the norm?
4. Paul Crusoe shares the last name of the title character of Daniel Defoes novel Robinson Crusoe. Why might McGuane have chosen to make this allusion to Defoes book?
5. Why has Donald Aadland returned to the ranch after his life in San Francisco? What makes him such a delightful character?
6. How does McGuane use the presence and power of nature—the plain, the mountains, the wind—as a force in the novel? What is the effect of the detailed descriptions of ranch activities? What is the meaning of the title?
7. After rereading a few particularly striking phrases, sentences, or passages, how would you describe McGuanes prose style? What is unique or idiosyncratic about his use of language?
8. Bill Champion and Evelyn seem to occupy the storys moral and emotional center. What is the nature of their bond? What knowledge or sensibility do they share that the rest of the characters lack?
9. How does the mood of the novel change when Evelyn and Bill work with the animals on the ranch? Is McGuane suggesting that the animals and their needs exist in a separate world? How does Evelyn respond to the necessities and rhythms of ranch life?
10. Does it come as a surprise that Bill Champion is the father of Evelyn and Natalie? Why does Alice choose Sunny Jim over Bill? What do Paul and Sunny Jim have in common?
11. Which scenes best exemplify McGuanes comic talent? How would you describe his sense of humor and his view of human nature?
12. Were told of Evelyn, “She tried to take in her happiness and decided it might consist of nothing more than living by herself. Sometimes it was loneliness, sometimes freedom” [p. 49]. The death of Bill Champion will leave Evelyn truly alone, but McGuane chooses not to describe Evelyns reaction to Bills loss. How do you imagine Evelyns life at the ranch without Bill?
13. Who is Majub, and how has he come to be involved in the family fortunes? What motivates him? How does his predatory capitalism (or criminality) contrast with the traditional economy of ranch life?
14. What happens during the books final episode? Who kills whom, and why? Why has Bill gotten involved in this business? Who ultimately wins, and who loses? Who is Red Wolf, and what role does he play in Bill Champions life and death?
15. McGuanes fiction is full of satire and sardonic humor, yet in The Cadence of Grass, as elsewhere in his work, he is passionately engaged in detailing the social, economic, and ecological problems of Montana and other areas of the West. What is the effect of this combination of humor and seriousness?