'The Evening Star' by Larry McMurtry

"The Evening Star" is Larry McMurtry's 15th published novel. Parts of this book are so good it is breathtaking. The stretches that fall flat--and there are many and they are long--serve in a sense as foils. What are the Rockies without the Great Plains?

Still, at 637 pages, this book is too long. Larry McMurtry's prose is a lot like Texas. You get a good look at what you're up close to as it whizzes past, but you can go awfully long distances without a major event to break the monotony. Maybe it's all that driving Texans grow up doing. As a matter of routine, McMurtry expects us to travel with him across great sweeps of time and distance. Two hundred pages are nothing to him--like driving 200 miles to a barbecue.

Like so many of his most memorable characters, McMurtry is a survivor; he goes the distance. Right or wrong, good or bad, he writes on, sometimes at the top of his form, sometimes not. He logs the miles, doing in public what all writers do in private--suffering the droughts and tangles of syntax, the seasons of green praise, the long winters of chill and incubation.

With numerous essays and two fine collections to his credit, McMurtry has done his dharma as a writer. From his hand we have received such fine, spare novels as "Leaving Cheyenne" and "Horseman, Pass By." We have been regaled by potboilers and embroiled in epics. To McMurtry we owe some of the finest, "The Last Picture Show" and "Terms of Endearment" among them at disparate poles. As a writer, he has led a wide and colorful life--and not only on the page.

A man of enormous erudition and discernment, a lover and purveyor of rare books, McMurtry makes no particular point of displaying his intellectual virtuosity in his prose. His characters move in their own worlds, worlds bordered and encompassed by their author's larger territory. Now the president of PEN, the contentious and often political writers' organization out of New York, McMurtry pursues his own star in literary circles with the stubbornness of a loner steer. He will go where he is going, come hell, high water and tough reviews.

It is one of the pratfalls of literary life as it is currently constituted that writers working in the novel medium take their licks when they begin to work in film. It is damning praise to be termed a "cinematic" writer and McMurtry most certainly is. In many ways, it is easier to talk about McMurtry in terms of filmmakers--his male-female sparring matches have a Hawksian sensibility; his tales of male bonding rival John Ford's.

An admirer of tough women--perhaps of all women, it could be argued from his prose--McMurtry has made us weep buckets ("Terms of Endearment") over female loss and over male impoverishment ("Lonesome Dove"). His is a world of extremes, of stark shadows and sere terrain. The opposite sexes are very opposite. They attract each other across great divides in consciousness, desire and intention. McMurtry can be said to have done the same with his reading audience. He is read as avidly by desk-bound New Yorkers as he is by cab-bound truckers making Kansas by nightfall.

To continue the question of landscape, McMurtry's prose itself is by turns prickly and flat. He punctures vanities and records human foibles without batting an eye. His writer's persona is as laconic as a lizard in the sun--and just as quick when called for. As a comic writer, McMurtry has few equals--in the West, one thinks of John Nichols, the New Mexico writer whose skills have always exceeded his reputation; in the East, Tom Wolfe shares with McMurtry the same wide social canvas, although his comic eye is darker and meaner- hued.

Gone from McMurtry's writing are the fine stretches of scenic description that distinguished his early work. Perhaps he has been living in the East too long and has lost the knack of seeing distance. Or, equally likely, he has watched his work be translated so successfully to the screen that he has come to eschew description as the art director's job. Whatever the cause, "The Evening Star" is an oddity, a Texas book rendered almost without landscape, as though the emotional landscapes of his characters have taken over the physical ones in McMurtry's own imagination.

"People who don't gossip are just heartless," Charlotte Hayes, a Southern newspaperwoman, once told me. "They're selfish. They just don't care about people."

By this standard, "The Evening Star" is a generous book--a lot like a good long gossip. For McMurtry regulars, the book is a welcome encore for the clan from "Terms of Endearment." We recognize the cast of characters: Aurora Greenaway and her curmudgeon lover, General Scott; Rosie Dunlap, Aurora's maid and Sancho Panza; the dead and departed Emma, Aurora's daughter, still very much a presence; Emma's husband, the feckless Flap, now a philandering English professor in Southern California; their three children: Melanie, Tommy and Teddy . . .

As luck and McMurtry would have it, they are the kinds of children parents dream about--in their nightmares. Teddy is a borderline personality maintained by proper medications. He and his equally brilliant, equally neurotic wife Jane are the parents of Bump, an infant with the promise of an ax murder in this future. Tommy, Teddy's brother, has already committed a murder, the shooting death of his lover, Julie, for which he is serving time in a Texas prison. Sister Melanie, plump and luckless, abuses herself through her lovers until she lands a part on a sitcom and can entertain America with her impersonation of Rosie the maid.

As readers may remember, Aurora Greenaway has never been a woman without erotic diversions--suitors, in the Southern phrase. They still abound. There's Pascal, a peevish Frenchman. There's her psychiatrist and lackluster lover, Jerry Bruckner. (The son of a Las Vegas showgirl, his interest in psychiatry began as a stand-up routine on shrinks.) There's Theo Petrakis, who owns the dockside Acropolis bar, if not Aurora's wandering heart.

As comic as this crew is, McMurtry has serious business with them all. This is a book about death and dying, which is to say, it is a book about the value and meaning of life. Impotence and senility, fragility in all its forms, inhabit the pages and the characters. Aurora's live-in lover Gen. Scott remains pettish and feisty even in his decline, but has taken a late-blooming fondness for nudity. Irrepressible, he makes frequent and inappropriate appearances. This is comic relief verging on tragedy.

To say that McMurtry writes fine dialogue is to understate the case. He writes arguably the finest dialogue going. Or coming. (And given his characters' sexual peccadilloes, it often does both simultaneously.)

As Aurora asks Rosie, her 80-year-old maid, "Did you and C. C. have sex in the car, or am I mistaken?"

As Rosie replies, "On a scale of one to ten, I'd give it a zero. . . . All I got was a raw back from C. C.'s old scratchy seat covers, and besides that I gouged myself on a screwdriver he left on the seat."

As Melanie asks Aurora, "Granny! You were going to do it on that couch with Pascal? What if the General came downstairs and caught you?"

As with any good gossip, you learn who is and who isn't sleeping together. Who is boring. Who's done something really interesting out of boredom. Boredom figures largely in the motivating factors of McMurtry's crew. Just as the excesses of the Southern Gothic novel could be laid at the door of heat and humidity working together on the frailties of human nature, heat and boredom and irritability may combine to give us much of Southwestern humor.

Reading McMurtry, we gather that "Dallas" was not so far-fetched, that Texans are capable of intrigues and fandangos the rest of us only dream about. McMurtry's literary accomplishments are a case in point.

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