'Some Can Whistle' by Larry McMurtry

In "All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers," Larry McMurtry's fifth novel, published in 1972, Danny Deck is half in love with Emma Horton, the wife of his pal and Rice University classmate Flap Horton. The feeling is mutual, but poor Emma is eclipsed when, after an all-night party in the home of Prof. Gordon Lloyd-Jons, Danny wakes up next to the leggy, alluring Sally Bynum. On an impulse, they marry. Before long, Sally is pregnant. On a second impulse they split for the coast.

Sally leaves Danny in San Francisco. Jill, an Oscar-winning screenwriter whom Danny meets in Los Angeles, leaves him too--Jill who seemed so perfect for him, an artist who loved his writing as much as she loved him. Back in Houston, trying to catch up with Sally and his unborn child, Danny is seduced by Jenny, his former landlady, but that can't last. He spends a guilty night with Emma while Flap is on a fishing trip, but that can't last either. Sally's father attacks him outside the hospital; Danny will not be permitted to see his own child. Despondent, he leaves for California again, but not right away. First, there is to be a detour to the Rio Grande.

"All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers" is a unique, Western-accented birth-of-a-writer novel. Sally and Jill leave Danny, Danny leaves Jenny and Emma, but along the way Danny sells his first novel, meets his first editor, attends his first literary cocktail party and his first book-signing, and faces the fact that he has become a strange sort of being: "The door to the ordinary places was the door that I had missed. The door to Emma's kitchen, or to all such places. There would never be an Emma's kitchen for me."

That strangeness may be nothing more than the strangeness of any novelist's life, novelists living, as they do, more in their made-up worlds than in the one the rest of us share. But this is a strangeness Danny is facing for the first time. His detour to the Rio Grande becomes the occasion for the rueful drowning of the manuscript of his second novel: "A boy drowning a manuscript. I would have laughed, if I could have been the one watching. I was never the one watching, though. I was always the one the hilarious things were happening to."

The Danny Deck of "All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers" is a genuinely lovable character. When Jill tells him "You're so lovable some girl will glom onto you five minutes after I leave. No normal woman could ask for more than you and a nice apartment," she is only saying what we already know. A rare ability to portray the lovability that real people do sometimes have is McMurtry's great gift. Not that his protagonists are saints: When a biker tries to shake down Gordon Lloyd-Jons, Danny flips the punk over a balcony railing and leaves him with a broken hip. But Danny's sins are sins of youth and passion, never of venality, calculation or simple meanness.

McMurtry's portrayal of Danny in "All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers" is helped along, however, by two features that are missing in "Some Can Whistle," the sequel to that novel. The new novel is set 22 years after its predecessor. Danny is now 51, a failed novelist but a fabulously successful television writer, the creator of a long-running hit, "Al and Sal." The show has been canceled, at long last, and Danny has taken a portion of his vast earnings and moved back to Texas where, improbably, he has the white-haired Lloyd-Jons as a roomer in his mansion.

One day, the phone rings at pool-side. It is his daughter, now 22. Over the years, until he lost track of her completely, Danny sent annual birthday presents for T. R., as she now calls herself. Sally, T. R.'s mother, returned them all. But Danny's fame and presumed wealth have prompted the young woman to come looking for her lost father.

Father welcomes daughter despite the fact that he has come to prize his solitude: "Once I'd probably felt that I was developing my solitude for the sake of my novel, or for some kind of art work, but in recent years I had come to realize that that wasn't really true. I had become solitary because I liked it and needed it. Aloneness, I had come to believe, did not need an art work to justify it."

T. R. represents, in truth, Danny's last chance to break out of his solitude. The inconclusive love affairs of "All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers" have subsided, in "Some Can Whistle," into inconclusive telephone conversations or, worse, into inconclusive messages left on answering machines. The rich-and-famous Danny alludes, a bit unconvincingly, to a jet-set past: "There were Marella Miracola and Antonella Napthi, the most dazzling and most constant of my various Italian loves. I also had a few pictures of women who had never been girlfriends, but who nonetheless loomed large in my memories of Europe--Pier Angeli, Francoise Dorleac, Romy Schneider; they flashed in my imagination whenever I thought of Paris or Rome." But that, at best, was then. Now is, so far as we can tell, a time of semi-voluntary celibacy.

T. R. is working in a hamburger joint when she calls. Danny will learn, in due course, that his daughter has not been raised by Sally and her wealthy new husband, as he thought, but by her low-life grandparents. She is coarse and poor, knows it, and hates herself and him because of it. During the first 300 pages of this 350-page novel, Danny tracks her down, persuades her to move in with him (she brings along her two small children and Muddy Box, the father of the younger child), and sets about overcoming two decades' worth of suspicion and resentment. As he does all this, he suffers recurrent migraine headaches (the migraine is all but an independent character in the first half of the book), drifts back in memory to the great days of "Al and Sal," and exchanges phone messages with the glamorous or semi-glamorous women of his former life, most notably with actress Jeanie Vertus, the one among them who seems genuinely in love with him.

These 300 pages depend, novelistically, on the relationship between Danny and T. R. Theirs is a boy-gets-girl drama, with the father cast as boy and his daughter as girl. T. R. resists Danny's advances, but gradually he wins her over. Her resistance ends when, against his tastes and her expectations, he takes her dancing in a local roadhouse. En route, there glimmers the possibility that as he warms her heart, he will warm his own; in other words, that T. R. will, indirectly, work a change in Danny's relationship with Jeanie.

Unfortunately, neither T. R. nor Danny quite comes to life. In an odd, brief chapter 10 pages before the end of the novel, Danny, now a reborn novelist, says: "It took three years to write the novel. I thought it would be about my daughter--about T. R. Perhaps I thought that in writing it I would discover some of the things about her that I didn't know; perhaps I thought the book would bring some of her back to me. By truthful imaginings I would find my daughter.

"I worked hard and in time regained a certain art, but the art refused to be used as I had hoped to use it. It took its own path, and the path led not to T. R. but to the old man . . . The book was a modest success."

"Some Can Whistle" is itself only a modest success, far inferior to the brilliant, hilarious, vivid "All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers." Danny is the same guy, still standing wistfully at that kitchen door. But his innocence, his fumbling are less beguiling in a man of 50 than they were in a boy of 25, and wistful phone messages pall more quickly than wistful sex scenes.

McMurtry had Danny's youth going for him the first time around; this time he doesn't. Worse, perhaps, the older Danny just doesn't get out and around as much as the younger Danny did. In the earlier novel, there were a score of minor characters: the Rice University librarian, a Mexican janitor, a pair of Texas rangers, a gas-station attendant, a redneck landlord, all of them drawn with stunning economy and delicious humor. There are many fewer characters in the new novel, and they are less well drawn. The physicality of the earlier book was exuberant: The Texas rangers toss the long-haired, hippyish young novelist across a barbed-wire fence into a field of prickly pears; the novel closes with him waist deep in the Rio Grande. The new novel, by contrast, seems all talk, far too much of it tedious plot summary from "Al and Sal."

And yet, just at the point when this reader was ready to stop reading, something happened in "Some Can Whistle." Life at Danny's Texas mansion flies to pieces when Earl Dee, T. R.'s first husband, gets out of jail and commits a multiple murder. One of his casualties, most mysteriously, is the voice of Danny-the-TV-Writer. What we hear instead, from this point on (which is to say, in the last 50 pages of the book), is a voice like that of Larry McMurtry in his nonfiction memoir "In a Narrow Grave." Denouement is rarely the most interesting part of a novel, but in this one it is. Danny tells us where the various characters have ended up, speaking simply with a kind of quiet, adult interest, rather as one might in a long letter. As he does this, McMurtry's novel most unexpectedly starts to move. Reading this book is like rowing a flat-bottomed boat through a reedy, muddy swamp. Your arms have long since grown heavy when you notice that you're not hitting mud any more: The water is deeper; the reeds are gone; there is a current under the boat; you are moving at last.

Those closing 50 pages and a brief, earlier episode featuring Jill Reed, the lost love of "All My Friends," are the work of the McMurtry whose devoted reader I have been since 1972. The rest seem to be by someone else.

More than generally realized, Los Angeles is the second pole (Texas is the first) in McMurtry's work. "Moving On," his fourth novel, contains the finest brief description of the freeway ever written. "Some Can Whistle" is, in good measure, a Los Angeles novel. There are pages in it about the television industry that many who work there may appreciate. But when one of the two main characters in a novel is killed and the other starts talking like someone else, and when just at that point the reader of the novel finds his spirits picking up, there has to be a little something wrong with those characters.

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