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Thomas McGuane's time in the shade

Boca Grande, a paradisal Gulf community known for attracting the well-heeled and the well-fished, occupies the fat middle knuckle of finger-shaped Gasparilla Island. The town is due northwest of Fort Myers, and a boat will get you there faster than a car. It is, of course, a very long way from the tarpon-free rivers of Southwest Montana. But for Thomas McGuane, a part-time resident of both areas, Boca Grande may seem even farther from Key West, a mere 134 nautical miles to the south.

McGuane, whose 16 books of fiction and nonfiction have established him as one of America's most eminent writers, hasn't been back to Key West much since 1982, the year his mother, who lived there, passed away. Born in Michigan in 1939, McGuane traveled far and wide for work and school before landing in Key West in 1968 with his first wife and toddler son. Five years later, he would be famous, with critics and readers alike hailing him as the second coming of Ernest Hemingway, thanks in great part to his third novel, the Key West-set "Ninety-two in the Shade."

Concerning a fierce rivalry among doomed fishing guides and serving as a salt-streaked allegory for the generational conflicts of the late 1960s and early '70s, the book set an exceedingly high bar for every Florida novel that followed. "Ninety-two in the Shade" earned McGuane a National Book Award nomination, a movie deal (he wrote and directed an adaptation starring Peter Fonda) and the envy and admiration of his contemporaries. Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson had the book's title "etched on a gold plate and fastened to the back of his desk chair," biographer William McKeen notes, "so it was behind him as he wrote."

Some four decades later, McGuane, who will read from a new book of short stories, "Crow Fair," on Thursday, March 19, at Books and Books in Coral Gables, looks back on "Ninety-two in the Shade" with measured appreciation.

"I still like it quite well, given that it had a kind of narrative force that is kind of hard to capture at any time," he says on the phone from his winter home in Boca Grande, the house filled with barking dogs and college-age grandchildren in town for spring break. "But you know, in terms of the way I write now, the writing was probably a little rich for today's blood. It's got a very aggressively language-driven style, and I've sort of moved away from that. But I still like the book. I feel it holds up."

Like the man himself, McGuane's writing has matured. Whereas "Ninety-two in the Shade" offers a rush of cerebral comedy and visceral tragedy, his subsequent novels, short stories and essays (be they about fishing, horses or motorcycles) dig deeper into what it means to not just be alive in the 20th and 21st centuries, but what it takes to truly engage with that life, both internally and externally. Go on and rage against the dying of the light, McGuane's work suggests, just do your best not to fog anyone else's light in the process.

This is not to say characters in McGuane's post-"Ninety-two" books don't meet violent or surprising ends. More than one body can be found floating down a Montana river in "Crow Fair," and a pair of turtles receive a particularly cruel sendoff. But even when a story appears to involve little more than an astronomer's walks in the woods (it's about more than that, of course), survival remains a key element. And one way to survive, these stories collectively argue, is by living a life that will be worth talking about after you're gone.

"It's part of our wish to outlive our own lives in a way," McGuane, 75, says. "There's a lot of stuff about our lives and about our families in particular that we're anxious to keep from being forgotten."

McGuane's life in Key West will not be forgotten anytime soon. Those years form the centerpiece of "Mile Marker Zero: The Moveable Feast of Key West," McKeen's breathless 2011 examination of the island's liberating influence on not just McGuane and Hemingway, but also on Tennessee Williams, Jimmy Buffett and Jim Harrison. In juicy detail, McKeen illustrates how McGuane earned and kept the nickname Captain Berserko, but also recounts the extreme discipline and devotion to his craft the novelist practiced on his way to literary stardom.

"He was that rare serious writer whose name was known even to those who didn't read books," McKeen writes. "He was flying at Hemingway's brain-numbing altitude. ... He was a rock star of writers, and he moved with a faster crowd."

McGuane confirms this assessment, and his small laugh tells you he's as amused by the memory of those days as he is weary of revisiting them.

"They interviewed Buffett not too long ago, who gave me the name Captain Berserko," McGuane recalls. "They said, 'What do you remember about Tom?' And he said, 'I just remember him working all the time.' It was Key West. It was the '70s. We were young, semi-hippie kind of guys. Buffett was working very hard, and so was I. But on the weekends, Friday and Saturday nights, we really did kind of go nuts. My memory of the '70s is that was what everybody was doing on the weekends."

Some of McGuane's readers, particularly those who favor his nonfiction writing about fishing and other outdoor recreations, may not even know about his libertine past. Certainly, most tabloid readers of the 1970s knew McGuane only as the longhaired playboy who married the actress Margot Kidder and later Jimmy Buffett's sister. But anyone who reads so much as a page of his work can see that they're in the company of a prodigious writer.

"The only thing I think really has served me well in terms of my relationship with the world is I have always had a pretty steady interest in doing what I do, from the time I was a teenager until now," McGuane says. "I think, generally speaking, people know I'm a serious writer, and I'm trying to be a better writer. If I can tell by the people that I'm in touch with in the literary world, I know that that's understood about me. They don't keep wishing I would do a lot of coke and tear up Joe's Stone Crab on a Saturday night. I think that's where it is. All in all, I think I've been very fairly treated in my public life."

Thomas McGuane will read from "Crow Fair" 8 p.m. Thursday, March 19, at Books and Books, 265 Aragon Ave., in Coral Gables. Admission is free. Call 305-442-4408 or go to BooksAndBooks.com.

jcline@southflorida.com, Twitter.com/jakeflorida

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