Thomas McGuane on Long-Lasting Friendships

Your story “Take Half, Leave Half” is about a long-lasting friendship between two boys—and then young men—from Montana, who grow up together but in different family circumstances. How did these characters come to you?

In lightly populated areas, social patterns seem clearer and more indelible than in places where more opportunities for transformation are at hand. Friendships begun in grade school commonly last lifetimes. Disrepute can linger unfairly or uncharitably with similar durability.

Rufus and Grant have little in common. Rufus seems born to be a cowboy or a ranch hand; Grant has his Mohawk and his rap tapes. What draws them to each other and keeps them renewing the friendship after high school?

This is one of those long-lasting childhood friendships, described above. There is something predetermined about Rufus’s life, whereas Grant feels that time is on his side as he tries out life styles. Rufus is an anachronism; Grant will get along fine, although he envies Rufus’s freedom and spontaneity, things he admires while avoiding the risk.

Rufus’s home is described as “a chaos of poverty, malaise, and unforeseen childbearing.” And yet he has more of a spiritual side to him than Grant, who is primarily pragmatic. Is there a contradiction in that, or a logic to it?

Rufus is free to make his own way through the dysfunction of his upbringing. He is blessed with self-confidence and a romantic vision of the life he would like to have. He is undaunted and foolhardy. I see Grant reacting to things that come his way as a practical person, conventionally opportunistic. I doubt that Grant would do something great, but I expect he’d have a satisfactory life. Rufus determines that flight into the unknown is a fair alternative to the kind of life his family has led.

Rufus tries to teach Grant “the saddle-bum ways as they disappeared.” Are those ways still disappearing? Are you (or is the omniscient narrator of the story) nostalgic for them?

They are declining toward an irreducible minimum. There will always be cowboys, and, generally, life will be hard for them, even unhappy. The original cowboy dream, to become a rancher, is no longer possible. Ranches are inherited or owned by entities elsewhere. I don’t think I’m more nostalgic for those ways than I am about the declining place of letters in our culture, the loss of wildlife, and the absence of public civility.

Does the economic and class disparity between the two boys’ families guarantee that their outcomes will be different?

I think so, but it’s not necessarily so in a broader sense: this is still America and unpredictable.

In your last story in the magazine, “Not Here You Don’t,” a man returned to his family’s former ranch and homestead and found the environment hostile. Are you writing a series of stories on the decline of that way of life in America?

Only in that I live on a ranch and in a ranching community, and it’s the material at hand. I think everything is declining in America. The speed of change is such that I’d rather write about almost anything else. People now live with remarkable fluidity. A writer has to catch them on the fly, rather than embedded in some physical or familial circumstance. ♦

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