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Friday, July 25, 2014

Patrick F. McManus

At a glance
The Blight Way
by Patrick F. McManus

Simon & Schuster
288 pages, $14
paperback

There’s more than one way to enjoy the comedy works of Patrick F. McManus.

You could, for example, track down the various magazines – Field & Stream prominently among them – that have published his short pieces over the years.

You could buy the pieces that McManus has seen collected in book form since 1978’s “A Fine and Pleasant Misery.” Or listen to their audio versions on cassette or CD.

Then again, you could watch Tim Behrens portray various of McManus’ characters, such as Rancid Crabtree or Retch Sweeney, on stage in such comedy revues as “McManus In Love” and “Scrambled McManus.” You could even purchase videotapes of a couple.

Here’s how The Spokesman-Review Book Club is doing it: by making McManus’ first Bo Tully mystery novel, 2006’s “The Blight Way” (Simon & Schuster, 288 pages, $14 paper) its May reading selection.

McManus, 73, has quite the resumé. Besides having written some 16 books, most being collections of his shorter pieces, the Sandpoint native was one of the founding faculty members of Eastern Washington University’s creative-writing department.

But his own biography, part one of which is on his official Web site (www.mcmanusbooks.com), points out that long before he turned to writing he’d worked, among other things, as a truck driver, heavy-equipment operator, jack-hammer operator and highscaler (“a job,” he wrote, “which consisted of dangling from a rope over a steep cliff and clearing away loose rock”).

It was when one of his fellow highscalers was killed by falling rock that McManus began thinking of attending college.

“Because my academic career so far had been distinguished only by its unrelenting mediocrity, I feared I might not be smart enough to survive in college,” McManus wrote. But he persevered at Washington State University, and gradually F grades rose to the level of A, and his future was set.

McManus’ turn to comedy came almost as haphazardly. He worked on and for a couple of newspapers – the Lewiston (Idaho) Morning Tribune and the Olympia (Wash.) Daily Olympian – before taking a job as a publications writer at his alma mater in Pullman, which gave him the chance to earn a master’s in English.

That’s when he went to work at EWU. And after realizing how hard teaching really is, he “decided to get serious about writing” by setting up a daily schedule: 7-9 p.m.

And when he made $300 for a humor piece that he’d written in barely an hour, he compared that to the $750 he’d earned for a piece that had taken months of research. He did the math and, he wrote, “that’s how I became a writer of humor.”

Over the years, few writers have done it better. McManus’ books, which would come out every two or three years, debut usually on the New York Times best-seller list and draw such comments as:

• “A style that brings to mind Mark TwainÖ, Art BuchwaldÖ and Garrison KeillorÖ” – People magazine on “They Shoot Canoes, Don’t They?”

• “(T)he funniest writer around today – indoors or outdoors” – the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on “The Grasshopper Trap.”

• “McManus … has been making outdoorsmen laugh for some time now, but his new collection of writing passes a sterner test. Here he can amuse someone who’s never even baited a hook” – Publishers Weekly on “The Night the Bear Ate Goombaw.”

Then, a couple of years ago, McManus decided to try longer narrative. The result: “The Blight Way,” a comedy mystery set in the small town of Blight, Idaho, where fortune allows Sheriff Bo Tully to give his aging dad a birthday present: a murder investigation.

Things get interesting when more bodies show up, cutting into the time that Tully can spend with the woman he has designs on: his grade-school crush, Jan Whittle.

In an interview just before his March 27 Auntie’s Bookstore reading of his second Tully novel, “Avalanche,” McManus talked about the difficulties involved in writing longer narratives.

In books, as opposed to stories, “you have these characters running all over the place,” he said. “They have these little lives that you have to keep track of. That’s really kind of a big problem.”

The other difficult involves a different kind of humor.

“(I)n the short pieces you have a fairly small comic idea,” he said, whereas with the mystery novels “you have what I think of as comic characters. And they banter back and forth, get in predicaments of one kind of another. So there’s no really big comic idea working … just a lot of little comic things. Or at least I think they are.”

That last sentence is typical McManus modesty. The critics, or most of them at least, liked “The Blight Way.”

“McManus delivers a brisk, hilarious small-town cop mystery,” wrote a reviewer for Publishers Weekly.

Echoing such sentiments, the reviewer for literary journal Kirkus Reviews wrote, “This series kickoff from prolific nonfiction author McManus … heavy on the banter, is one of the most entertaining mystery debuts in years.”

That, of course, is another way of enjoying McManus: Read what the critics have to say.

It’s better, though, just to read him yourself.

Return to Book Club Home  //  Contact Dan Webster