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Family Values

McGuane invents one seriously nasty group of kinfolks

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Writers grow rich when awful families engage in awful behavior, and the misconduct of rotten kin has been an inexhaustible vein since ancient Greek clans took to sleeping with -- and then killing -- each other. In The Cadence of Grass, Thomas McGuane's first novel in a decade, we have a strong contender -- the Whitelaws -- for the coveted title of Worst Family Ever.

We meet this scheming tribe of control freaks, ex-cons, sexaholics, spineless chumps, heartless businessmen and various co-dependents as they mourn the loss of their dysfunctional patriarch. Or, rather, as they mourn the fact that Daddy Dearest, in one final act of aggression, left a will that ties up the assets of his company until his older daughter and her estranged rogue of a husband reconcile. But the main plot is mere latticework for all the entwined intrigue that follows.

How bad is this bunch? A thesaurus of synonyms for evil will get us only half way there, but the probate judge's reaction -- "he quietly and desperately hoped he never saw these people again" -- is indicative. But let's start at the top:

* Sunny Jim Whitelaw: Head of the clan, now deceased. An "unwearying old goat" who earned his nickname by never smiling ("People smile to get others to agree with them. It's pitiful. If they had any guts or leadership, they wouldn't care."). Blackmailed another man out of his wife and inherited the children as part of the hostile takeover. Warned his thieving son-in-law that he would "recoup his losses by selling his vital organs," then followed through with a black market kidney donation. Referred to his eldest daughter as "a cold one" and punished her with a final testament that, according to his crooked attorney, "was the first time he'd seen a will function as a lien." Of her recently deceased husband, Sunny Jim's wife, Alice, offered this testimonial: "He certainly didn't mind ruining people."

* Paul Crusoe: The ex-con son-in-law with more kidneys than morals. Described by his estranged wife, Eve, as a "demon," he is the bastard offspring of a barfly with a PhD and the "teenage juvenile delinquent" she seduced. Paul is "loathed as a treacherous, authoritarian opportunist" by his staff, and skims off the company's profits (see Sunny Jim Whitelaw, above). "Sex sherpa" to the Whitelaw sisters, he has recently committed adultery with Eve's sister, Natalie, and is currently fornicating with his parole officer, whom he will humiliate and drive to suicide. Paul's hero is McDonald's founder Ray Croc, for his enlightened business acumen. Motto: "If my competition was drowning, I'd put a hose in their mouth."

* Natalie Whitelaw: Greedy daughter, undevoted wife. Currently seeking divorce from husband she views as a "cigar store Indian" and loathes for his "unwavering sense of duty and loyalty." Recently finished rehab for undisclosed drug addiction; now "hooked on rage" and kleptomania. Slept with sister's estranged husband, simultaneously urging their reconciliation to cash in on inheritance.

* Alice Whitelaw: Matriarch who left struggling rancher husband for greener pastures with Sunny Jim, taking rancher's infants with her. Viewed by daughters as "a simpleton and an opportunist." Fond of consulting tabloids for conversational non-sequitors to avoid confrontation. Late-life epiphany: Many people "do not wish to humiliate one another for sport."

* Eve Whitelaw: Clueless do-gooder and co-dependent, periodically forgets husband's "cold and predatory nature" and tumbles for him. Oblivious enough to declare, "how rare were genuinely sordid existences," while living one.

* Stuart Cook: Devoted co-dependent husband and cigar store Indian. Motto: "You have to accept things about people you don't like or there'd be no one to talk to."

* CJ Majub: Family attorney, cold-blooded killer. Motto: "I make companies get bigger, or I make companies get smaller."

* Bill Champion: Rancher and father jilted by Alice and blackmailed by Sunny Jim Whitelaw. Still hasn't said "boo" about it.

That's the condensed version of the Whitelaw story. McGuane's is a deliciously savage, down-and-dirty read, a sinister soap opera crisply written by an author whose trademark is a combination of wit, cruelty and occasional enlightenment.

The only dull character in the book is McGuane's home of Montana, a familiar backdrop in much of his work. But in The Cadence of Grass, the pastoral interludes halt the story's momentum. On Bill Champion's failing ranch, time seems to stand still. So, unfortunately, does the book. Besides, with sub-humans like these, who needs animals? *

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