In the first few pages of Keep the Change, there are tantalizing signs that Joe Starling, the protagonist, will eventually amount to something—a painter, a rancher, a good lover, perhaps even an interesting character in a novel worth reading. But no. As a painter, he possesses technical skill but no passion. The same could be said of him as a lover. As a rancher he is attached to his land, but not enough to fight for it. Thomas McGuane, author of such well-received works as The Bushwhacked Piano and Ninety-two in the Shade, has peopled his latest novel with some delightfully quirky characters. But, in Joe, McGuane has created one of the most dispirited little drips in modern American fiction.
Joe is a son of the Montana soil who wants to break away. His father is successful enough as a cowboy-turned-banker to send Joe to Yale, and indifferent enough to let him study art. Joe becomes moderately successful as a painter, and attracts Astrid, a spectacular beauty. The character of Astrid has great potential, but somehow, this volatile free spirit talks like a self-conscious writer. “I am in the dreary mental situation,” she announces at one point, “in which sneezing, laughing, coughing, calling the dog or ensemble singing are equally uncomfortable.” When Joe gets uncomfortable, he steals her car and drifts back to Montana.
There at last, it appears, Joe will confront his destiny. His father has died a bankrupt alcoholic, leaving a neglected ranch in the hands of relatives who assure Joe it will soon be his. Joe sets out to revive the ranch. And he takes up again with Ellen, the neighbor he deflowered when they were teenagers, who is now married to Billy. Everything falls apart when Joe allows his relatives to cheat him out of the ranch’s profits.
By the end, Joe signs over the ranch to Billy, just to keep Ellen’s greedy old daddy from getting his hands on it. And Joe appears to understand that he must return East, perhaps to Astrid, if she will have him. With any luck, though, she will dump this moping numbskull, and the author will let her develop her own voice, in a better book than Keep the Change.
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