One of the things I've always found compelling about Larry McMurtry is the breadth of his literary vision, the way his characters reappear from book to book with all the serendipity of life. Particularly in his early work, McMurtry constructs a universe as fully realized as William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, in which individual books are not so much separate as part of some larger progression that seems to exist beyond the page. Thus, Patsy Carpenter, whose story forms the substance of McMurtry's finest novel, "Moving On," reappears in "All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers," while Emma, her best friend, becomes the focus of "Terms of Endearment," which recounts the circumstances of her life and death. It's an ambitious--and expansive--approach to fiction, erasing arbitrary distinctions between peripheral figures and protagonists to concentrate on the inevitable connections between every one of us, until we are left with a larger apprehension of the world.
In recent years, however, McMurtry has narrowed the scope of his writing, turning his back on these more fluid associations to write a series of specific sequels, instead. This process began in 1985 with "Texasville," which brought back the characters from "The Last Picture Show" with less than satisfying results. "Texasville" read like the work of a tired writer, one whose imagination had begun to betray him, who had chosen to re-examine old themes because he felt he had nothing new to say. (Not coincidentally, around the same time McMurtry also began to produce novels recasting the mythology of the Old West, material he had once derided as used up and barren, little more than a cultural cliche.) Of the seven novels McMurtry has published since, four have been sequels, including his most recent, "The Late Child," a follow-up to 1983's underrated "The Desert Rose."
"The Desert Rose," actually, may be the McMurtry book most well-suited to support a sequel, since it is one of the few that stands completely on its own. The story of an aging Las Vegas showgirl named Harmony and her precocious teen-age daughter, Pepper, the novel takes place, for the most part, over a couple of days, and it has a rough, slightly incomplete feel. In a preface to the paperback edition, McMurtry himself notes that "Pepper is very young, and her story deliberately left unfinished. Sooner or later, rainy days come in one's artistic life, and when they arrive it is nice to have a character available in whom one's interest is not exhausted." Although that's a revealing comment, it's also ultimately ironic, since "The Late Child" opens with Harmony reading a letter in which she learns that Pepper has died of AIDS.
Of course, the death of a child is a powerful conflict around which to build a work of fiction, and McMurtry plays it out here from beginning to end, as Harmony tries to deal with "the tearing and splintering feeling inside.". First, she reaches out to her family, with whom she's been out of touch for many years. Then, accompanied by her 5-year-old son Eddie, and her sisters Neddie and Pat, she leaves Las Vegas for New York, where she meets Pepper's lover Laurie Chalk, before continuing on to Tarwater, Okla., the hometown she left at 16. In a way, the physical movement of the story mirrors the internal process of mourning that Harmony must go through, which takes shape in her attempts to recover both her daughter's life and the details of her own past. After all, only as her journey progresses does she begin to come to terms with the idea that, as Laurie says, "at some point we have to let Pepper go on and be dead. Because she is dead, you know. And we're not. At some point I have to go back into the world and make a life--so do you."
Throughout "The Late Child," McMurtry is at his best when he delves into Harmony's fragile psychological state, exploring the lump of half-articulated emotions, of guilt and sorrow and obligation, she carries around within her like a stone. "The fact was," he writes, "it could all end any minute. . . . All around her, even in the small airport in Tulsa, cords that had knitted lives together were being cut. Probably there were several people, sleeping now in Tulsa, who had lost their loved ones but hadn't even got the phone call yet, informing them of their loss; they didn't know, as they slept, that they would wake to discover that their lives had changed forever, as hers had when she opened Laurie's letter and discovered that Pepper was dead.". At the same time, his explication of Harmony's relationships--with her family, Eddie and Laurie Chalk--gives her a depth only hinted at in "The Desert Rose." McMurtry has always written exceptionally well about women; they represent many of his most memorable characters, such as Patsy and Emma, or Jacy from "The Last Picture Show." And in "The Late Child," Harmony emerges as every bit their equal, a woman who has always relied upon a superficial optimism, forced to face a situation in which optimism will never again be enough.
For all that, though, "The Late Child" is a substantially flawed novel, with plot lines that go nowhere, and a contrived flavor to much of the action that makes it difficult to suspend disbelief. Especially in the New York and Oklahoma sections, pieces of heartfelt writing are followed by outlandish developments that come out of nowhere, as when Eddie's dog, Iggy, falls from the top of the Statue of Liberty and lives, a feat which lands the boy and his pet on national television, and gets them invited to the White House. More troublesome are the clumsy political ironies McMurtry seems inclined to work into his story at any cost.
Certainly, I can believe that Harmony's nieces and nephews, who have never left Tarwater, would end up as druggies, or that her brother Billy might serve time for making obscene phone calls. Yet there's an unspoken comparison between the members of her family and characters such as Sheba, a teen-age black hooker with whom Harmony becomes friendly in New York. Despite living in a dumpster and turning tricks in a parking lot, Sheba is just a "nice, friendly girl" who takes a liking to Eddie, and looks after him for a while. It's a pleasant enough fantasy, but I can't help thinking that such a woman would come with some pretty serious troubles of her own.
Like much of McMurtry's later work, "The Late Child" has a meandering, not-quite-thought-out quality, as if it were a glorified first draft. Only when McMurtry sticks to Harmony's inner life, her sense that her "self had gotten shattered; there were just pieces of it floating around, she didn't think she had much hope of getting the pieces to fit together into a person again," does the novel have any kind of urgency, and, at 461 pages, it is too long by at least a third. "The Late Child" is a better book than "Texasville," or even "Some Can Whistle," the sequel to "All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers." But compared with McMurtry's best writing, it is just a shadow, in the way that sequels often are.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times