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.
About the Author
Thomas McGuane lives in McLeod, Montana. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the author of ten novels, three works of nonfiction, and three collections of stories.
Read an Excerpt
In most ways, old man Whitelaw's funeral was just another scene in the family's life. Paul Crusoe, estranged from Whitelaw's daughter Evelyn, a strong young woman with black hair that hung straight to her collar, was led to his mother-in-law's sitting room by Evelyn herself. Mrs. Whitelaw, who could act as oblivious as someone nearly blind, sat with Evelyn's sister, Natalie, whom Paul viewed as a high-strung, nasty girl who once caused all his problems and who for her part despised him unstintingly. On the side table was a Stockman's Journal and a CPR handbook. Natalie smoked and looked at Paul over her raised cigarette. The red hair was certainly not genuine.
Bill Champion, an old rancher and longtime partner of the deceased, looked in briefly. He was dressed for the occasion but the clothes belonged to an earlier era. His forehead was much paler than the rest of his face and his blue eyes were startling. From the cuffs of his jacket, once part of a suit, projected hands that looked too big. He exchanged a concerned glance with Mrs. Whitelaw, then left the family alone.
"Mother, you haven't said a word to Paul," Evelyn said with an anxious smile once Bill was gone.
"Oh, Paul," said Mrs. Whitelaw, seeming to awaken, "you're so considerate to have come." Evelyn toyed with the porcelain birds and turtles on the mantel while keeping a watchful eye on her mother.
"It's unfathomable," said Natalie.
Mrs. Whitelaw turned slowly toward her.
"I don't think so," said Mrs. Whitelaw blindly toward Paul. "Jim and Paul had so much in common, an adventurous spirit! So suspicious of everything too," she said. "It made the rest of us ordinary people feel we were in a wonderf"
"A wonderful play," said Natalie.
"ful whodunnit. But Paul, Father was much saddened by your divorce"
"Saddened, illuminated, chastened," said Natalie. "Where are we going with this?"
"I liked you better when you were on drugs," Paul whispered to Natalie.
Natalie had recently graduated from rehab in Arizona, a pleasant milieu with celebrities arriving by helicopter.
"It was not drugs," she hissed. "It was rage. Justified rage. In any case, I wouldn't have otherwise flown a thousand miles to eat from a steam table, to share a room and to wear a breezy outfit that tied in back."
"No worries," said Paul. "It's behind you now, mate."
With feverish preoccupation, Evelyn tended to her mother, refilling tea and holding a tray of cookies at eye level. In truth, she was no more prepared for her father's funeral than she'd been for his death. And both she and her sister would soon discover how incomplete his departure had been.
"What exactly are you doing these days, Paul?" Natalie asked. "Anything illuminating for Mother at this very rough time in her life?"
"Ay-yi-yi-yi? Is this the Mexican hat dance?"
"I was doing a project with...a firmunderwriters, reallydoing debentures pertinent to the lumber business, or the wood products business would be more like it...." Paul knew perfectly well, if too late, that Natalie was well informed in these areas.
"Wood products debentures?"
"Something of a by-product of the days with those stock pickers, you remember, the small-capital and emerging- nations guys that"
"Paul, you have no job, have you?"
"Not at the moment. Not much of anything. A bit of a day trader. I hope to return to the bottling plant."
Evelyn moved away in embarrassment, Paul's eyes following her.
"I'm sure you'll find something," said Natalie, holding her cigarette to her mouth and relighting it. "And Evelyn," she said, turning to her sister, "I was touched by your little grimace of sympathy, your pained embarrassment at all this unease. Paul, she still cares!"
Mrs. Whitelaw's eyes seemed to search around the room for the source of the discord. "Natalie," she said hopelessly, knowing there was never any cautioning Natalie, whose latest fear was that she had stopped emitting pheromones.
"Perhaps we both still care," said Paul. A touching remark, made to comfort Mrs. Whitelaw in her widowhood since neither of them cared anymore at all. It was surprising, really, that Natalie seemed to take him seriously enough to go on challenging the idea. Evelyn occasionally noted a visceral inclination toward her estranged husband, though it was not at all unmanageable.
"But all that water under the bridge! The otherwise admirable but nonmeshing complexities of character, the lack of the children, theevidently!dimming prospects of a nonstarter in the workplace!"
She was rolling now and Paul had her in his sights. Natalie found it difficult to listen while others were speaking, and her attention darted among triviasilverware, matchbook covers, her napkinpractically anything in order to avoid listening. Whenever she herself spoke, she fastened on the listener's eyes, feeling that only absolute vigilance could prevent their attention from escaping.
"Natalie," Paul interrupted, "when you were on drugs, at least there was the initial euphoria. Perhaps we were insufficiently appreciative of that during the days of rage when you sought to recapture the original high. And certainly we remained unaware of the depth of your situation until you installed the cat door at your apartment so as to receive packages from your connection without burdensome conversations."
Natalie smiled at this recollection. "That was good, wasn't it?"
It was a sincere question, and reluctantly Paul's admiration of Natalie came back. They'd once had what she called quality sex, and perhaps its lingering tonalities were what now gave Evelyn such a lost look. She had been thrilled to be rid of Paul but would have preferred dumping him more felicitously than upon her own sister, who gave him an entirely too greedy welcome.
Mrs. Whitelaw, having fled the present scene into her own thoughts, capitalized on this first real pause to steer the conversation elsewhere, whether they liked it or not. The three of them knew ahead of time that what followed would be an analogue every bit as opaque as the most ancient aphorism.
"Explain this to me," Mrs. Whitelaw said with a certain eagerness. "I read in the Chronicle that a boat speeding down the Sewanee Riverthe Sewanee River!hit a wave made by a water-skier and flew right through the window of a second-story condominium! Paul, you tell the girls and me: How can these things happen?"
"Mrs. Whitelaw, I"
"Surely you know Stephen Foster's Way Down Upon the Sewanee River!"
Natalie left the cigarette dangling from her lips. "Mama, evidently times have changed way down upon the Sewanee"
"How on earth does a speedboat fly into the second story of a condominium?"
"I don't know," Paul said as though genuinely puzzled. Actually, he was staring at the old Harry Winston choker bedecking Mrs. Whitelaw's bosom, wondering how it would fare in a death tax appraisal. All of them thought Mrs. Whitelaw had finished her venture in analogies, but in this they were not correct.
"According to the same issue of the Chronicle, a chicken, a pet, escapes its hutch in Greeley, Colorado, and walks forty miles to the other side of Denver through traffic, strip malls, gas stations, parking lots, followed everywhere by rumors and news reports. At one point they had a helicopter looking for this chicken, and the owner, an older gal, a waitress, trudged and rode and followed the rumor trail until fate brought this chicken to bay in the parking lot of Blockbuster Video! Thereand this just makes me want to bawlit was reunited with the old waitress. Who was no dope, because before she even fed that worn-out bird which I saw on TV and which looked like a piece of rag, before she'd even given this poor broken little thing a dish of water, she sold the film rights to Hollywood! No wonder my husband was ready to go!"
"Still, Mrs. Whitelaw," said Paul, who had rarely been this mentally bankrupt, "there's so much to be thankful for."
"Oh, Paul," said Natalie with contempt and pity as Mrs. Whitelaw belly laughed and pulled a handkerchief from her reticule with which to undampen her eyes.
Evelyn, looking on, recalled feeling that Paul Crusoe had never really been ready for this family. This sort of customary byplay between Paul and the sisters was nothing new and not nearly as resonant as it would become after Jim Whitelaw's will was read. For now, they lived on in a fool's paradise, brought together as a family by the apparently complete lack of feeling for the deceased.
Earlier, at the funeral itself, Mrs. Whitelaw, seated next to Paul during the long and tiresome service, wanted to know a few things about him; sotto voce, like a conspirator, she seemed not to be thinking about her husband at all.
"Were you a Boy Scout, Paul?"
"It wouldn't have mattered when you were young, of course, but the Boy Scouts are in hot water with the queers. It was in the Chronicle. Can you tell me briefly, Paul, why your marriage to Evelyn failed so suddenly? And be sure to make it brief."
"It wasn't sud"
"It was the lack of children, wasn't it?"
"I have no right to make these sorts of guesses, Paul. Other people's lives, even your own children's, are a complete mystery."
"Actually, we bo"
"We bored each other!"
"Don't raise your voice to me, Paul. Do you need money?"
"Whatever could you mean by that?" Mrs. Whitelaw turned her attention to the service. "Isn't there going to be some sort of music?"
"I have no idea."
Paul's mother, Dr. Edith Crusoe, a Westernist at the University of Colorado at Boulder, chose this moment for a quiet arrival. She was not to stay for long. Indeed, she remained in her mackintosh, whose wide lapels rose around her ears as she sat quizzically regarding the coffin, her face lively and discontented. She murmured something that caused Alice Whitelaw to smile in modest gratitude, nodded rather formally to her son and snubbed Evelyn entirely.
Evelyn understood that had Dr. Crusoe not found something thematic in the funeral, something emblematic about low rainfall, say, she wouldn't have come at all. Evelyn surmised that as her father had owned a bottling plant Dr. Crusoe may have viewed him as an oligarch of moisture hoarding, and she imagined the passage wherein the descendants of mammoth hunters are bludgeoned into an ecological black hole by waves of coercive white men on horseback wielding Coca-Cola bottles. Partisan hyperbole had made Dr. Crusoe not just a professor but a public intellectual in the Northern Rockies, but Evelyn's views of her were unreasonable. She had never married and Paul was her only child. When the priest began to speak of the deceased and the meaning of his life, Dr. Crusoe rose sharply to her feet and departed, the crown of her head barely visible above the lapels of her coat.
The priest addressed his remarks to the coffin. Having not listened to anything until now, Paul and Mrs. Whitelaw found this completely baffling. Evelyn was discomfited to recognize in the sermon whole passages from that year's Farmers' Almanac.
"I see where they've made another movie about the Titanic," said Mrs. Whitelaw.
"That's right," Paul said, his eyes widening.
"What can they possibly add?"
"This time it floats," he said wearily.
"Oh, Paul, I find your humor rather extreme."
"Pay attention to your husband's funeral," he snapped. Mrs. Whitelaw looked at him, then suddenly crumpled and began sniveling into her handkerchief.
"This is what it feels like to be doomed," she said miserably.
"Oh, Mrs. Whitelaw, I'm so sorry."
"You will look after me, won't you, Paul?" Later he would wonder if her remark contained some premonition.
"Yes, Mrs. Whitelaw."
"I was doing so well, so detached"
"Remarkably well, in view of circumstances. Now it is all falling, falling, falling, falling." Knowing that it would be only a short time before Mrs. Whitelaw was on the muscle again, Paul attempted to hold and comfort her, a dismal exercise. "What a shame we're losing you to our family, Paul. I'm glad Jim wasn't quite aware of it, he was so enfeebled toward the end, always with a hat on his head. Never wore a hat during his life unless it was dangerously cold out, but at the end it was always these awful red watch caps. He looked homeless. Perhaps when people reach that point they are homeless, aren't they, Paul? Are they finished up there?"
It looked as though they were. The priest had just finished saying something and had clasped his hands. It must have been something very good about heaven for him to chance such a puckish demeanor. But no, good God; he was addressing Mrs. Whitelaw, who hadn't heard a word he'd said. "I hope my words weren't inadequate, Mrs. Whitelaw. I remember Jim's opinion on long speeches all too well."
She gazed at him as though he were a pesky employee.
"That's not just Jim," said Mrs. Whitelaw with sudden authority. "That's the way the whole world feels."
The family was obliged to meet over and over again just to understand how the estate was to be probated because the last will and testament of the deceased was a "minefield," according to the attorney who drafted it. The daughters were so fixated on the attorney's dramatic hairdo that they often couldn't remember his name, but they recognized the will as pure Sunny Jim Whitelaw, attempting to bind his family to his wishes from beyond the grave. Alice was bequeathed a living from the bottling plant, of which Paul was appointed president and chief operating officer, at a handsome salary. Not a guaranteed red cent for anyone else. A provision, however, existed for the alteration of the conditions thus imposed. Should Paul and Evelyn cancel their plans for divorce, the profits of the business could be shared among all family members, or it could be sold and the proceeds divided. In any event, while it wouldn't make any of them wealthy, a degree of comfort and security was probable if, as the obnoxious attorney suggested, they behaved themselves. Natalie's husband, Stuart, said that the will reminded him of the Iron Maiden. Natalie called it proof of her father's hatred and emitted penetrating howls in the chambers of the probate judge. Stuart gave her a calming shoulder rub. Evelyn exhaled and said, "Ooh, boy," as her intention to divorce Paul was the single greatest act of defiance she had ever directed at her father. Paul had, through the confidences of Sunny Jim, known all along that if he stayed in the marriage, stayed in the family business, he could be reasonably expected to keep his trap shut. He had a copy of the will and put the cash-flow schematics in his wallet as though they were real money. Alice Whitelaw said that she felt secure and offered loans to her children. Knowing what a cheapskate she was, this provided scarce comfort to anyone; and when Paul gave her a congratulatory pat on the back, Evelyn heaved a sigh of heartfelt disgust.
The probate judge, a decent old man with snow white hair, found himself agitated by all the ill will and complication in this family. While offering them formal best wishes and the ongoing availability of his advice, he quietly and desperately hoped he never saw these people again, then darted off like a fugitive, describing the situation to the first colleague he ran into as "a chandelle off a shithouse."
Reading Group Guide
“Darkly fiendish, wildly unsettling, and viciously good.” —Men’s Journal
The introduction, discussion questions, suggestions for further reading, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of Thomas McGuane’s The Cadence of Grass, his first novel since the bestselling Nothing but Blue Skies. In The Cadence of Grass, McGuane’s 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, we’re 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 Paul’s life?
3. How does McGuane’s inclusion of bizarrely comic events—such as Evelyn’s night in the snowstorm and her rescue by Donald Aadland [pp. 87–105] or Paul’s waking up in Las Vegas to discover a neat row of stitches across his abdomen [pp. 122–25]—affect the reader’s sense of reality in the novel? Does it seem that in McGuane’s 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 Defoe’s novel Robinson Crusoe. Why might McGuane have chosen to make this allusion to Defoe’s 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 McGuane’s prose style? What is unique or idiosyncratic about his use of language?
8. Bill Champion and Evelyn seem to occupy the story’s 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 McGuane’s comic talent? How would you describe his sense of humor and his view of human nature?
12. We’re 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 Evelyn’s reaction to Bill’s loss. How do you imagine Evelyn’s 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 book’s 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 Champion’s life and death?
15. McGuane’s 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?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Sunny Jim Whitelaw has passed away, leaving his bottling empire in the hands of his estranged son-in-law Paul with not a red cent going to his family -- unless his eldest daughter Evelyn decides to reconcile with Paul. A reconciliation is the last thing Evelyn wants to do. She would rather stick with the more comfortable rancher's life to which she's more accustomed. Paul would like nothing better so that he can sell off the bottling plant and he'll do whatever can to make sure that happens."The Cadence of Grass" reads like any soap opera: lots of snarky, back-and-forth dialogue between characters, deeply buried family secrets coming to light, backstabbing, unfaithfulness, the staling of body organs and a cross-dressing rancher. Even with all that, it seemed to lack any real bite, almost as if the characters verbally attacked each other half-heartedly. I didn't enjoy the brief verbal "sparring" matches and couldn't find myself liking any character, preferring instead the scenes of action.That's where McGuane's story shined. His descriptions of such things as Evelyn and Bill the family's rancher heading into the wilderness to round up some missing heads of cattle before dark settled in, or Evelyn's terrified trek through a snow storm first via car then on foot through the woods, or even Paul and Sunny Jim's trip to Las Vegas resulting in someone losing a kidney, were richly detailed and held my interest. I found those scenes far more interesting than rest of the story.And, just because it's been bugging me since I finished the book, I didn't see the point of having a cross-dressing rancher, Donald Aadfield. When he appeared as part of the family that rescued Evelyn during the snowstorm, I thought his openness ab out being gay and his interest in ranching -- just as strong as Evelyn's -- would have sparked more interaction between them. But his character disappeared until near the end of the book, for perhaps a page or two with what seemed very little effect on the story, then he disappeared again.The ending left me confused. I didn't understand why Bill would have gone along with Paul's scheme -- something very out of character for Bill -- traveling up to the cold, icy part of Canada for what I think was a drug run. And I couldn't connect the last five or so pages with the rest of the story. I skimmed those pages because they seemed inconsistent.Did I enjoy reading the book? Well, I guess that would be a "not really". I did enjoy the descriptive action scenes, but the dialogue and characters never captured my interest enough to recommend it.
Beautiful in the exteme. I do NOT subscibe to the notion that McGuane has less fire in his prose and has, therefore, gotten less interesting. I find this an astonishingly lovely piece of work.
I first read McGuane years ago, and think his better books are behind him.
I heard about this book through a magazine review. It sounded good so I thought I'd give it a try. The characters were nutty and unbelievable and the plot was "out there." I've never read anything by this author before this (and I won't read anything else by him). Not knowing a thing about the author, I'd wager a hefty bet that he'd done some serious drugs when he was younger (or maybe he was doing some while he was writing this book)! How did he conceive this story?! I will not recommend this book at all.