Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Driving On the Rim in Livingston, Montana

 Courtesy of The New York Times

Berl Pickett, the self-deprecating memoirist in Tom McGuane’s Driving on the Rim, may well be the average, small town physician in Montana,
but I doubt it. McGuane presents Berl’s recollections the way a cowboy on horseback chases calves in a cutting horse competition, which happens to be the McLeod author’s avocation. He goes for the critter at hand and then returns for another, in no particular order. We never learn what Berl looks like, and true to literary form, we have no disparate image sprung on us later, leaving us content with our own. Despite Pickett’s awkwardness, he manages to punctuate life in his hometown of Livingston, Montana with three rocky romances. That is, if you don’t count his initiation to love by his own aunt in Idaho, much to his parents’ dismay.
Berl witnesses his patients’ relationships going bad, intervening as best he can, while trying to build one of his own. When his first girlfriend, Tessa, an opportunist who formerly shacked up with an art collector decades her senior, presents with a fatal, self-inflicted knife wound, Pickett does his professional best to save her. But he knows he never had a chance in either regard. For reasons unknown, other than small town vindictiveness, he is accused of negligence and blamed for Tessa’s death, which results in losing his license to practice.
While on a fishing trip to the remote Dean River in British Columbia, the events of 9-11 take place without Berl’s knowledge. When his plane doesn’t arrive, he waits for two days and then walks to the nearest town. When he learns what happened in New York, it fuels his feeling of disconnectedness. He drives back to Livingston in an Oldsmobile 98 that he finds on a lot in Vancouver and then uses the car to wander around for the rest of the story. He paints houses, all the while trying to assess how the bizarre events of his life, including the malpractice charge and the strange relationships with virtually everyone could have happened.
Along the way, Berl recounts his life story. He tells of caring for his parents, members of the World War II generation, his dad a veteran of the Huertgen Forest. His mother was a religious fanatic who ultimately had to be committed in her twilight years. His father didn’t wait for the rapture as his mother did but hoped, at least, to get out of the wind. Anyone who has been to Livingston knows this feeling.
The book has funny and poetic moments and even a macabre twist at the end that concerns Berl Pickett’s great, but doomed-from-the-start love, Jocelyn, and her villain sidekick. In the end, Pickett triumphs by attrition, and he learns as Dorothy in OZ did that the secret to life was with him all along, and that some things will remain unknowable until further notice.

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