In Thomas McGuane’s tenth novel, “Driving on the Rim,” a friend of the narrator suggests that he “get some advice about operating on a somewhat different plane. Neither I nor anyone else in town can figure out where the hell you’re coming from.” Needless to say, the narrator does not quite understand what his friend means. Dr. Irving Berlin “Berl” Pickett’s life is changed when he is accused of the negligent homicide of a former lover. Spurred in large part by this event, Berl plunges into a search to discover and understand himself and the meaning of his life, a meditative journey in large part focused on the exploration of formative events from his earlier years. Novels propelled by emotionally incompetent or unreliable narrators often depend in large part on a story arc that gradually leads to either the protagonist’s self-actualization or the reader’s comprehension of the discrepancy between the narrator’s lens and reality. Though full of comically astute social observations and lyrical depictions of the Montana landscape, the novel fails to develop Berl’s meditations enough to fully illuminate its idiosyncratic protagonist and the darkly humorous aspects of small-town Montana life.
Berl was raised by zealous Pentacostalist parents with a tendency to embark on obscure and ill-fated professional endeavors like a rug-shampooing business. Berl’s first sexual experiences occurred as an early teenager, with his aunt. With a childhood like this, it’s easy to understand why, upon reaching adulthood, Berl might have difficulties functioning in his community. The gradual narrative revelation of Berl’s social awkwardness is humorous and initially satisfying. While having drinks with Tessa Larinov, Berl’s lover-to-be, his idea of an appropriate icebreaking question involves asking her, “When people use the expression ‘rest in peace’ do you think they have some basis for saying it, or is it just wishful thinking?” When examining the incident in retrospect, Berl acknowledges that he shouldn’t have thought Tessa would have an answer to this question, but this is the extent of his understanding of the social ineptitude of his remarks.
The novel shifts constantly between Berl’s reflections on his earlier years and his middle-aged struggles with his career, his relationships with women, and the aftermath of the accusation. This latter storyline is compelling but unfortunately receives less emphasis than Berl’s recollection of his young adult life, and the way it is interspersed with meditations on the past weakens its impact. Berl’s younger years certainly contributed to his development as a man and a doctor, but his memories of his youth often feel repetitive and do not dig deep enough to enhance the story. McGuane spends a great deal of time discussing Berl’s father’s obsession with his experiences in the Second World War. Each time he reflects upon these stories, however, he only adds a few new details, making the novel feel somewhat disjointed. Certain moments from Berl’s adolescence are particularly strong, however, and illustrate McGuane’s skillful use of dark humor, such as Berl’s description of his sexual awakening at the hands of his aunt Silbie. In reference to Berl’s parents discovery of the two naked together and their understandable rage at Silbie, Berl reflects, “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of a trailer has a gun, and Silbie pulled hers on Mom and Dad.”
Berl often comments on his tendency to slip into a dissociated emotional state, and the novel in some ways recreates this sensation. The story jumps back and forth in a non-linear manner and the transitions between passages are often very abrupt. This narrative choice reflects Berl’s meditative process—outside of fiction, reflections rarely take place in a chronological form—and although this does allow for a deeper immersion within Berl’s mind, it often results in confusion about the sequence of events.
Berl is, in fact, an intriguing and complex character, whose social ineptitude is often driven by compassion and goodwill—or by uncontrollable and regressive sexual desire. Knowing that much of Berl’s character was determined by his childhood and young adulthood, there are certain details from Berl’s earlier years that would benefit from greater development. Although Berl’s parents’ stories are discussed in depth, Berl’s own experiences, whether with early girlfriends or in medical school, are often only described superficially.
McGuane is at his best not in his construction of character and plot but in his descriptions of nature and the Montana landscape, which are particularly strong throughout the novel. McGuane lives on a ranch in McLeod, Montana, and at the start of the novel, he provides a disclaimer saying, “The people and places of this book, inspired to some extent by forty years living in Montana, do not exist in reality or even entirely in familiarity.” Fortunately, McGuane masterfully utilizes his experience with the landscape of Montana to illustrate an environment of beauty, immensity, and complexity. By inserting Berl into this world, McGuane succeeds in creating a compelling setting and premise, albeit one that could have benefitted from a stronger and less disjointed plot. Reflecting on his life, Berl says, “I do abide in the conviction that I’ve come a long way, and lately I’ve wondered how this all happened.” The novel might have benefited from more time spent exploring exactly that.