An Outside Chance by Thomas McGuane

An Outside Chance by Thomas McGuane (1991) French title: Outsider. Translated by Brice Matthieussent.

Thomas McGuane was born in 1939 in Michigan. He’s a scriptwriter, a novelist and a non-fiction writer. He lives on a ranch in Montana. An Outside Chance is a collection of “sport essays”. The themes of the essays are all about outdoors activities.

Frequent Book Around the Corner (BAtC) Reader, rolling their eyes – Oh dear, another book about fly-fishing

Emma – Well, yes there were fishing stories. Fishing in the ocean in the Keys, fishing in ponds in Michigan, fishing in Montana, British Columbia, boho fishing in San Francisco, fishing with wife and son, with wife’s grandfather and with Jim Harrison.

Frequent BAtC Reader – Is it a Gallmeister book?

Emma – No. It’s published by Christian Bourgois Editeur. However, it’s totally Gallmeister’s kind of books.

Now that we’ve had this little discussion, let’s go back to An Outside Chance. Thomas McGuane writes beautifully and I’m sorry that I have no quote to share because I read it in French translation and it’s not available on kindle. Usually, I download a sample from the kindle store and find quotes that fit my billet in the first pages. It seems like An Outside Chance is OOP in English but I’ll put quotes in French at the end of my billet for readers who can read French.

Besides the fishing, McGuane tells us about the time he bought a motorbike, his special boat, a Meadow Lark. He writes about his childhood and his youth and how he made pocket money by fetching, refurbishing and reselling golf balls near his hometown golf course. McGuane was also a rodeo champion, so a few stories are about rodeo, horses and people living off the rodeo business. He’s also a hunter and the story about antelope hunting was a bit hard to swallow.

Thomas McGuane describes nature with the words of a true nature lover. (1)  He makes you want to rush to Montana and see the Absaroka mountains, the Big Hole River and the landscapes. He drops hits of his personal life here and there. He got divorced, he son grows up, his parents die. He seems to find solace in physical activities and the slower pace of nature. Wilderness refuels him and he gives back a bit of this energy in his essays. He’s reflective and calm but never romanticizes nature. It is not always a place fit for humans. It’s often hard, unrelenting and dangerous, a place where a small mistake can be fatal.

I find his kind of writers fascinating. Have a look at his bio on Wikipedia. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, National Cutting Horse Association Members Hall of Fame and the Fly Fishing Hall of Fame. Only an American writer can these three things at the same time. It seems to me that French writers are always teachers, journalists or scriptwriters. They have little experience besides their Parisian world. I know no French writer who has been a policeman, a university teacher, a carpenter, a cowboy and a professional fisherman like Craig Johnson. Or they don’t say it because it’s not consistent with the image of what a writer should be. France is also not a country where your career path can easily take U-turns and still be on a good path, it’s getting better, though.

Writers like Thomas McGuane have studied literature in excellent universities and worked blue-collar jobs. They bring their academic knowledge into their outdoors activities. McGuane can see a parallel between fly-fishing and Camus. (2) He has a way to make more of his hikes in the Montana wilderness. He has words to describe them, to share his experience with us and take us there for a while. He’s far from the intellectual writer and his essays brings to us a world we’d never hear of.

Sometimes I thought he must be hard man to live with, since he has a propensity to take risks. Fishing when the sea is rough. Looking for a boat he can’t really afford. Buying a ranch in the middle of nowhere. Hiking in the heart of the Montana winter. Purchasing a motorbike he doesn’t know how to ride. Competing in rodeos, in contests involving bulls. What a rollercoaster it must be to have such a spouse! As far as I’m concerned, rollercoasters make me queasy.

While I skipped some pages because I couldn’t take anymore fly-fishing stories, I enjoyed McGuane soothing prose. I now want to read his fiction and have Keep the Change on the shelf.


(1) « Je laisse la Land Rover près d’un bosquet d’épineux. La campagne ouverte s’étend selon un entrelacs de pentes qui descendent des collines basses précédent les Crazy Mountains. Du plateau où je me trouve, j’aperçois au sud la chaîne des monts Absaroka déjà enneigés. Le temps est un peu à l’orage, des panaches de neige tourbillonnent dans les cols les plus élevés. Mais ici, en bas, le soleil joue autour de nous. »

(2) « Face à un cours d’eau inédit, je me demande toujours si je vais pêcher avec une nymphe ou pas. En tout cas, on n’attaque pas la truite de front sans réfléchir. Camus a dit que la seule question digne de réflexion est celle du suicide. Ce qui me fait penser au problème de la nymphe. »

  1. March 22, 2020 at 2:24 pm

    You already said what I was going to say. You’re becoming a real expert on Montana, you probably already know more than the average American. I really dislike fishing, but I enjoy the series about the Montana ranger living at the end of the track who solves murders. (Names never stick, particularly audiobooks where I might only pick up the cover once or twice). French writers all study philosophy at the Sorbonne, US writers do cookie cutter MFAs. Australians, mmm.. can I generalize, I think they all start out as school teachers. So I guess it’s good there are still some going down the old Jack London/Hemingway path.


    • March 22, 2020 at 2:42 pm

      Well, I’m also reading to prepare my trip to Montana & Wyoming this summer but it seems compromised now. Even if things get better in Europe till then, I’m not confident that it’ll be over in the US.

      I wish you remembered the series about this Montana ranger, I’m curious to know what it is.


      • March 22, 2020 at 2:55 pm

        I searched my own blog on ‘Wyoming’ (not Montana!) and came up with Breaking Point the 13th Joe Pickett novel by CJ Box. I’ve listened to at least one other and I enjoy the fact that Pickett is non-violent and Wyoming, despite the mountains and pine trees, feels like outback Australia. But then, you’ve probably already read him.


        • March 22, 2020 at 2:57 pm

          No! I’ve never heard of him. Thanks! I’ll look for it.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. March 22, 2020 at 3:42 pm

    I was sure this was going to be another Gallmeister book! This does sound fascinating, and its an insight into a life I could never lead – I’m a born and bred city dweller.


    • March 22, 2020 at 3:49 pm

      I’m like you. I’d never live that way and that’s why it fascinates me.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Vishy
    March 27, 2020 at 6:40 pm

    This looks so wonderful, Emma! I love essays, especially ones like this. Will add this to my TBR. Reading your review made me think of Matthew Crawford. He used to work in a Washington think-tank. One day he just quit that and started a motorbike repair shop 😁 And then he went and wrote a book about it called ‘Shop Class as Soulcraft : An Inquiry into the Value of Work’. In the book, he says that fixing bikes (or doing things with our hands) is better than working in a think-tank. I remembered that when I read your thoughts on how sometimes American writers try so many different things ☺️ Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


    • March 28, 2020 at 10:02 pm

      I hope you can find it, it seems to be OOP in English. He has other non-fiction books, if you don’t find this one.

      Re-Matthew Crawford. It seems to me that the working-with-you-hands-is-a-better-kind-of-work thing is typically American. It’s like a mythical way to go back to the origins of the country. Have you ever heard of another Western country where people take pride in building their own house? Or actually do that? This is also typically American, like wanting to survive on one’s own in a cabin in the woods.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Vishy
        April 10, 2020 at 9:32 am

        Oh, sad to know that it is out of print in English, Emma. Will look for his other books. I loved what you said about working-with-your-hands being an American thing. Very true 🙂 I remember reading that Thoreau promoted this cabin-in-the-woods thing.


        • April 11, 2020 at 7:35 am

          I need to read Thoreau, to see what it’s all about.
          Not surpringsly, it’s published by Gallmeister. 🙂


          • Vishy
            April 21, 2020 at 2:12 pm

            So nice! Gallmeister rocks! 😁

            Liked by 1 person

  1. May 8, 2020 at 8:31 am
  2. February 7, 2021 at 10:40 am

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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