Luis Alberto Urrea
Luis Alberto Urrea

When I discovered Thomas McGuane, he wasn’t yet a gentleman rancher. He was a long-haired hellion rock-star insurgent taking potshots at American complacency and deploying the damnedest literary riffs I’d ever seen.

I discovered him in a tawdry little used paperback store behind the grocery in my old neighborhood—the kind of joint grandmothers shopped at, trading two beat-to-hell romances for an unread thriller stamped THE BOOK RACK. I was scraping bus fare out of the couch to get to my shit jobs and trying to save a few cents here and there for good reads. Lo, there was McGuane’s The Bushwhacked Piano. It started with some fool killing a piano with long-range sniper action. I laughed out loud. In those days, anything that could make me laugh long enough to forget that life basically sucked rocks was a blessing sent from the hand of God himself.

I immediately devoured the book, then reread it, stunned that I was laughing to the point of streaming tears while catching my breath at the sheer heroics of the guy’s prose. I rushed back to the store, lest some granny beat me to any further McGuanes, and found Ninety-Two in the Shade. It was a cold-water shock. My jester hero dropped some mad heaviness on my head and left me flat on my back, gasping like one of the fish his Floridian salt-flat fishermen reeled in. It was the era of mad dogs like Dylan, Morrison, and Hendrix, and here was someone absolutely setting guitars on fire with his words! I’d never seen anything like it. Who wrote sentences like, “Appropriately, a hand-painted sign adorns the opposing brick wall: a weary Uncle Sam in red, white and blue stretches abject, imploring hands to the beholder; a receding chin has dropped to reveal the mean declivity of his mouth, which says ‘I NEED A PICK ME UP'”?

I was smitten and perverted by the McGuane enterprise and immediately saw my own writing veer away from Latin American fecundity and a remnant Ray Bradbury/Ursula K. Le Guin love of the fabulous improbable into a slavish McGuanian overdrive, trying to sound like the master and evoke chills I hadn’t yet earned—cop his chops, as the old rock ‘n’ roll reviewers might’ve said in my other deep influence, Creem magazine.

I never shook my love for McGuane’s language. Critics came and went, doubters assailed his works, harpies judged his “feckless” heroes and shaggy-dog plots. Well, I don’t know about any of that. All I know is that on any given page, in any ridiculous or harsh or romantic or sarcastic scene, some vista will open before me and stop me dead. He always did that to me and still does. You had to be smart to read him, even in books that seemed to promise—like so many American novels—that you could be a drooling idiot and still get a real kick out of the deal. That Tom, what a sneaky bastard.

Fans—now that I have fans—ask me what my favorite books are. That’s a hard one. But I can always rest easy on McGuane’s Nobody’s Angel. That book, for me, is a perfect performance—heartbreaking, hilarious, luminous, and trembling with shadows as if you were reading it under aspens the whole time. I was sleeping on the floor of a friend’s Hollywood house, hoping to publish a book one day, any day, feeling the big lonesomeness of that cement town, walking miles among hookers and crazy people. Stepped into a used bookstore. Found Nobody’s Angel. One McGuaniac sentence looped out like a lariat: “The yard light erect upon its wood stanchion threw down a yellow faltering glow infinitely chromatic falling through the China willow to the ground pounded up against the house by the unrepentantly useless horses.” I didn’t laugh this time. I stood there in the smell of the crumbling, browning books and cried.