“Into the Twilight, Endlessly Grousing” By Patrick F. McManus ($20, Simon & Schuster, 221 pages)
By now, almost everybody is familiar with the humor of Pat McManus, especially everybody here in his home territory.
His trademark style, often involving wild slapstick antics, is in abundant evidence in “Into the Twilight, Endlessly Grousing,” his 13th and newest book. A grizzly bear chases a man up a tree - while the man is still strapped into a stretcher - if that gives you some idea.
Yet in this book, I found myself appreciating some of McManus’ more subtle qualities. Subtle isn’t always a word associated with a writer who puts a deer on a bicycle and actually makes it pedal, but in this book McManus stretches as a writer.
This new tone is set from the first story, titled, “The Boy,” about a neighbor boy who McManus uses as “ballast” on his canoe trips, until one day the boy moves away. This is not a funny yarn as much as an affectionate mood piece, in which McManus nearly becomes wistful and poignant. Not quite - McManus still retains that curmudgeonly veneer. But it is written with a satisfying depth, almost as if he’s mourning the disappearance of more than just “the boy.” At the same time, the story retains the best of the McManus wit.
Many of the 27 stories in this book (all but one of which first appeared in Outdoor Life) revert back to vintage McManus style. There’s a story called “Big Ben” about young Pat’s adventures with fireworks (“I was well into my teens before I realized the Fourth wasn’t a season but only a single day.”). This story ends with Pat tossing a firecracker down someone’s waders.
We even get to drop in on the exact moment when young Pat met the great and powerful (in terms of aroma) Rancid Crabtree. McManus still ranks up there with Jean Shepherd in his ability to spin a funny childhood yarn.
But the best stories in the book are those in which McManus tries something new. For instance, one of the funniest pieces in the entire book is called “Fan Mail,” a hilarious spoof of Pat’s exchange of correspondence with a young reader. Another is a piece called “For Crying Out Loud,” an essay in which Pat notes that men today are permitted to cry. If he had known that years ago, he could have reacted like this the time he lost a monster fish:
“Waaahhh! I wanted that fish, Dave! Waaahh! It’s so unfair. Waaahh!”
Then there’s “Will,” a beautifullycrafted story about a group of people on a hunt in Montana. One of the hunters is Will, a terminally ill old man who wants nothing more than to go on one last hunt. This story contains even more depth of emotion than “The Boy,” and yes, you might even call it poignant.
The title story is about an old man named the Old Man, who wants to go on one last grouse hunt. The Old Man is a crusty, stubborn old guy, and McManus treats him with a crusty, stubborn kindness. This, too, is McManus at his finest.
The book’s title, “Into the Twilight, Endlessly Grousing,” almost sounds like a swan song. Let’s hope McManus didn’t intend it that way. McManus, in the best of these stories, is better than ever.