Life on the rim

Heroism is on the run in Tom McGuane's new novel, "Driving on the Rim," a delicious, tantalizing, hilarious, gauzy, smoke-and-mirrors, forever-running-off-at-the-mouth book hard not to fall in love with when all is said and done.

The narrator, Irving Berlin Pickett (Berl for short), a small-town Montana doctor, avers that, "I have always believed that it was my great good fortune to spend the first part of my life as a nit-wit, and to have stayed in my hometown where my limitations and peculiarities would always be in the air." And in the air they are, with gusto.

Named by his evangelical Protestant mother and enveloped by the spirit of his war-hero and deserter father, Berl spends much of "Driving on the Rim" making up for the faults he often cultivates. "There had been enough things from early on in my life to teach me that being an imbecile is an effective way to get along in America; if it had been more satisfying, I would have stuck to it." Early on he finds a mentor in bird-watcher and fisherman Dr. Olsson (a man as ordered as Berl is disordered) who puts up with Berl's foibles and sends him off to medical school in Ohio. Berl is as natural a healer as he is a screwup and oddball.

Women figure prominently in McGuane's storytelling weaponry and many figure here as well, beginning convulsively with Berl's Aunt Silbie, who tutors 14-year-old Berl in lovemaking until being run off by Berl's shotgun-toting dad. A series (or is it a string?) of affairs tag after Berl like stray cats, most prominently one with Tessa, an antiques archivist "with the look of a Tartar, wry and dangerous," who right off accuses Berl of plaguing her with obscene phone calls. He tells the sheriff, "I don't have a phone."

Berl being Berl, he refuses to toe the American line and falls into trouble with his doctor colleagues at the local clinic. In the middle of the novel, an airplane crashes in front of Berl and out tumbles the exotic, dangerous and inflammable Jocelyn, who is enigmatic enough to be running drugs. Berl falls into half-love, an infatuation which further inflames the town against him. His lone friend is Jinx Mayhall, a fellow doctor who thinks him fabulously handsome, likes his wit, and despairs of his folly. She is waiting for him to come around. "Perhaps you find it difficult living in a morally bankrupt and hate-filled nation, it's not for me to say." Jinx tells Berl. It is ultimately to Jinx that Berl will turn for the truth of life, which is about the tenacity of truth-seeking, the usefulness of love, and the worth of nature.

"Driving on the Rim" is populated by fully formed characters brimming with life. In fact, McGuane discovers language enough to express both the larger and smaller truths of his book, which involve the near-epic stories of local ranchers, railroad hands, real estate swindlers and desperate housewives. Nearly every page of "Driving on the Rim" is priceless and could have been written by Smollett or Fielding. It is that good.

In a macabre twist, McGuane has his narrator accused of negligent manslaughter when Tessa dies in his arms, a charge produced as much by his colleagues' jealousy as fact. And Berl counsels one of the battering husbands to pull the trigger of a gun already in the patient's mouth. He promptly does so, producing a spew of brains and bone. Is Berl doubly guilty?

McGuane is now 70 and has just been elevated to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives on a ranch in Montana with his wife where he raises cutting horses and Angus cattle. For a man who was once known in Hollywood as "Captain Berserko" on account of his drug-riddled escapades with starlets and waitresses — as well as the fabulous actress Elizabeth Ashley — he has come a long way.

Like Berl, McGuane has stumbled along the way, a couple of worthless novels published to disregard, a few foolish and public fiascos, here and there an embarrassing imbroglio. But, like the brilliant writer Jim Harrison with whom he is closely aligned, McGuane has learned how to live in this morally bankrupt and hate-filled nation, not an accomplishment to be taken lightly. A skill like this has something to do with lightness of spirit, gentleness of self-reproach, and a love for the earth abstracted from its worth as real estate.

"Driving on the Rim" by Thomas McGuane (Knopf, 306 pages, $26.95)