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Driving on the Rim


Driving on the Rim

"I have always believed that it was my great good fortune to spend the first part of my life as a nitwit," comments Irving Berlin (known as Berl) Pickett, "and to have stayed in my hometown, where my limitations and peculiarities would always be in the air. The feeling you got by such persistence, of enlargement and occupying space, greatly outweighed the disadvantages of whatever you were known for."

As you might be able to tell from this quote, Berl is an overwhelmingly self-deprecating narrator, and one who is, if not quite unreliable, at the very least prone to missing the point and leaving gaps that the reader instead must fill in. As he tells his own life story, in dozens of bawdy, humorous, and sometimes moving and tragic episodes, Berl comes across as a baffled observer, a distant onlooker instead of an active participant in his own life. When he does become an active participant, he portrays himself as an incompetent bumbler, even when his actions reveal him to be otherwise. Competence, passion --- any deep emotion, in fact --- are all deeply sublimated beneath Berl's dispassionate narration, which, although at times extremely funny, still comes off as somewhat distant, chilly and sad.

Berl, whose lifelong hometown is in Montana, is the son of an atheist father and a fundamentalist Christian mother. After a childhood spent a half-step ahead of homelessness and a few steps behind desperation, Berl attends college in Ohio and becomes a doctor, in part to honor his mentor and in large part to become wealthy. Along the way, he receives a different sort of education at the hands of many women, including, most memorably, his aunt, in an episode fated to end badly ("It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman in possession of a trailer has a gun.").

Berl appears to be a good doctor, his genuine concern for his patients shining through the neutrality and self-deprecation with which he describes their interactions. But when his old girlfriend shows up at the hospital with a soon-to-be-fatal, self-inflicted knife wound, suspicions abound about Berl's own role in the woman's death. The town's lack of confidence in him coincides with his own conviction about his eternal ineptitude and lack of understanding of himself and others.

What's ironic of course (among many ironies in the book) is that Berl consistently proves himself to be a wry observer, particularly of place. In the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, he comments on the perception of people in his small Montana town: "Awareness of larger themes was something we didn't much go in for where I lived. We tampered with ignorance to keep our lives miniaturized; the Internet made us feel like ants. We worried that we would no longer care about weather. I treasured my most rural and ignorant patients for the way other humans loomed for them. When someone died, they never said, ‘Poof!’ It was always a good-sized tree that fell."

DRIVING ON THE RIM is full of lovely little moments like this, shrewd observations, funny one-liners, and memorable quotes that beg to be repeated. The novel's picaresque format, sprawling topics, and unusually detached narrative style give it an old-fashioned feel, but its ironic self-commentary marks it as undeniably contemporary.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on October 3, 2011

Driving on the Rim
by Thomas McGuane

  • Publication Date: October 4, 2011
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 140007522X
  • ISBN-13: 9781400075225