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Keep the Change by Thomas McGuane

July 28, 2021 5 comments

Keep the Change by Thomas McGuane (1989) French title: L’homme qui a perdu son nom. Translated by Brice Matthieussent.

Keep the Change by Thomas McGuane is focused on Joe Sterling, an untethered young man who needs to find his way back to his identity. This explains why the French title is L’homme qui a perdu son nom, or The man who lost his name.

Joe Sterling comes from a family who owns a ranch in Deadrock, Montana. His father inherited it but made a career at the local bank before his promotion as bank manager in Minneapolis. He moved his family there and became another man. Joe’s father never sold the ranch. He leased it to his rival and neighbor, Mr Overstreet, who wants nothing more than to buy it because its plot of land is inserted into his property. Of course, Sterling refuses, out of pride. The rivalry is kept alive.

When Sterling senior dies, the ranch goes to his sister Lureen, who is supposed to keep it safe for Joe’s future. The understanding is that she owns the property deed but the moral contract says that Joe’s the actual owner and is entitled to the rent’s money.

Joe used to spend his summers working at the ranch under the supervision of Overstreet’s foreman. He also went out with Ellen, Overstreet’s daughter and got beaten up by a local boy, Billy Kelton. These summers are part of his identity, moments of happiness and rightness. It’s also in the abandoned house of a forgotten rich man from the silver rush that he experiences his first deep encounter with painting.

Joe loved Montana and the ranch but didn’t see himself operating it. He chose an entirely different path: he went to Art School at Yale, became a successful painter in New York and lost his mojo.

He moved to Key West, met Astrid and lived off the rent from the ranch and from his commercial drawings. Indeed, after dropping his career as a painter, he started to work for his university friend Ivan who sells electronic devices and is always in need of explanatory drawings for the instruction manuals.

At some point, Lureen stops sending the rent money, Ivan comes with a drawing order for a ridiculous and useless Miss X machine and Astrid sounds unsufferable. Joe leaves Key West and drives to Montana, to take over the ranch and hopefully find his identity.

Joe doesn’t fit anywhere. He starts raising cattle on the ranch but, even if he doesn’t make any fatal mistake, he knows that full-time ranching isn’t his calling. He doesn’t paint anymore. He doesn’t know if he still loves Astrid or not. He’s in an uncomfortable zone where every area of his life itches.

He fumbles through life and needs the time in Montana to reconnect with his aunt Lureen, his uncle Smitty and the local community. He explores his family’s history and the dynamics between the three siblings: his father, his aunt and his uncle Smitty. His father was a bit estranged and feared by his siblings. Uncle Smitty never recovered from the war and is a little swindler who takes advantage of his sister Lureen. She covers for him, out of love. Joe finds out that his father was not popular in Deadrock, especially after the bank forclosed several local ranches.

Joe realizes that he doesn’t really belong to the Deadrock community. There’s a striking scene where Joe is at a funeral and makes a speech about the deceased only to realize that he was talking about another man with the same name.

Keep the Change was published in 1989 and in a way, reflects the atmosphere of the 1980s.

Joe doesn’t really want to conform to society’s expectations. He doesn’t want to be a white middle-class man with the white picket fence, the two kids and a job. He rejects the Miss X project because deep down, he’s against all these devices that the industry shoves down our throats. He’s at odds with the yuppie atmosphere of the 1980s. He doesn’t want to be a blind consumer.

He also doesn’t understand the need to own land. It’s an urge he doesn’t feel and that makes him at odds with the Montana mentality. There are beautiful passages where Joe rides his horse on the ranch, he contemplates the beauty of the land surrounding him and he doesn’t feel any pride for owning it. Its beauty is enough to satisfy him.

Greed is not in Joe’s bones. The book title is Keep the Change, and in my mind, I hear Joe saying it as he checks out of the American society and doesn’t bother to gather his change before turning its back to it.

For a change, my edition includes a very interesting foreword by the translator, Brice Matthieussent. He’s also the translator of Jim Harrison’s books. Since McGuane and Harrison were excellent friends, wrote to each other once a week and did fishing trips together, it’s interesting to see that they had the same French translator.

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