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The Evening Star by Larry McMurtry.

Orion, 1992, 637 pages, £14.99 hb; £5.99 pb

Reviewed by Robert M. Young

Anyone who saw - or, more vividly, read - Terms of Endearment, will have the character of Aurora Greenway firmly implanted in their imagination. Moviegoers will give her the face of Shirley Maclaine and will couple her with her irascible neighbour, Jack Nicholson, a clapped-out astronaught (the film won five Academy Awards and five more nominations). The Evening Star tells us about the rest of her life and the lives of her family and retinue. I greatly enjoyed it. Aside from the private pleasure I get from McMurtry’s books, they also help me as a psychotherapist, since they provide so much insight into human nature and what makes differences between people so fascinating.

Larry McMurtry’s forte is characters, not character. Many of them have character, but what draws us to them is their idiosyncrasies - their manner, speech, odd vocation. What is endearing about them is their wit or cussedness or how they get into and handle an impossible situation - like dying young (Terms of Endearment) or having to drag your best friend’s corpse the length of America, because it was his dying wish to be buried by a certain stream (Lonesome Dove) or being an ageing Las Vegas showgirl whose daughter is coming along to dethrone you (Desert Rose) or two men loving one woman throughout their lives (Leaving Cheyenne).

Some of his characters are completely fictional. Others are renditions of figures from the history of the West. Anything for Billy is about Billy the Kid and was written in the style and from the point of view of a dime novelist. Buffalo Girls is about another western legend, Calamity Jane. What is absorbing about these books is the author’s self-imposed task of leaving us to infer, as best we can, the inner worlds of these people from his evocation of what they did and said and how others experienced them. It is almost the antithesis of a psychoanalytic account. It is all surfaces. His characters don’t ruminate much; we learn their thoughts from their conversations and how they cope. What is surprising is just how much insight we gain from a style which practically eschews introspection and authorial attribution of motive, two of the main advantages of the genre of the novel.

Other characters in McMurtry’s books are so striking that they become instant folk legends and the subject of indelible film portrayals. This is especially true of Sonny, Ruth Popper and, above all, Sam the Lion, in The Last Picture Show, which was made into Peter Bogdanavitch’s first and best film, with moving performances by Timothy Bottoms, Chloris Leachman and Ben Johnson (two Academy Awards and six nominations). The same can be said of Homer Bannon, the old rancher in Horseman, Pass By, and the housekeeper, Halmea, memorably performed by Melvyn Douglas and Patricia Neale in the film version, Hud (three awards, six nominations).

His most legendary creations are a couple of retired Texas Rangers, Augustus McCrae and W. F. Call. Their saga was so wonderfully rendered by McMurtry in Lonesome Dove that he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for it, and it was made into a lovely television mini-series, starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones (Golden Globe and seven Emmys). They are quintessential McMurtry characters, with apparently incompatible personalities and a bad relationship on the surface but with deep affection below. The action of the book turns on familiar theme - the complex consequences of what people get up to in their attempts to escape boredom. They try to construct meaning from self-imposed tasks, in this case driving their herd the whole length of America from Texas to Montana in pursuit of the dream of starting over as ranchers at a time of life when old timers with any sense would be retiring. The ensuing adventures make up McMurtry’s most compelling saga and includes compelling subplots and more characters: psychopathic renegade, repentant whore, rite-of-passage adolescent, rape, lynching, Angelica Huston, Frederick Forrest.

But it’s still true that Aurora is one of his best portraits. She was an utterly interfering mother in Terms of Endearment, unable to let her daughter build a separate life - vain, hectoring, the quintessence of a mother-in-law, wealthy WASP Houston’s answer to a Yiddisha mama. At the same time, she is utterly captivating, full of life and grit and has all sorts of colourful suitors whom she treats with flirtatious disdain. Somehow, we learn that there is more to her as the daughter comes down with cancer. She and the ageing astronaut surprise us and take on the weight of dying and the fact that the grandchildren’s father just isn’t up to it.

McMurtry’s novels often allude to previous ones. Texasville was a sequel to The Last Picture Show. I got little from the book or the film. The book was despairing, the film wooden, as if money and fame and the times had just scooped out the characters, leaving them to play meaningless parts in Texasville’s tawdry centenary celebration, a day which culminates in a vast orgy of nihilistic waste - the townspeople throwing a whole truckload of eggs at one another and the courthouse. The hero of Some Can Whistle is the same Danny Deck we knew as a young author in All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers, but he is burnt out and jaded from his experience as a successful writer for television. He gets to know his long-lost daughter, only to have her rubbed out by a crazy ex.

The Evening Star is his latest novel and finds McMurtry on his best form. Aurora has been with a retired general for a couple of decades, and he is definitely fading. One of her grandsons is in and out of madness, the other is in the state penitentiary for killing his girlfriend. Various other members of the family get into and out of scrapes, while the central relationships are between Aurora and Rosie, her maid for forty years, and between Aurora and Jerry, a much younger man who practices psychotherapy.

There are lots of characters, and the plot is intricate. McMurtry’s writing is the nearest Americans get to Dickens, but something central to Dickens is missing. There are no historically momentous happenings. It is all contained within an inward-looking America, most of it in Texas, practically all in the West. What happens occurs within the blinkered world view of American provincialism. Dignity and the lack of it are expressed on a small screen. People live and die without having been up to much, yet his insight and compassion mean that none has lived entirely in vain.

We find Aurora, an elderly woman, still drawing men like flies - the French Attaché, Greek taverna owners. She has an affair with a fake (but effective) therapist, decades younger. He decides to move on and takes up with a young Latino girl, whose jealous lover stabs him as she and Jerry are just getting into his car to go to California. In an unusual passage, the author takes us into Aurora’s reflections.

‘In the three weeks after Jerry’s death Aurora had shut herself into her little garage office and read Proust straight through. At times she put the book down and brooded; at other times she put the book down and wept, not so much for a lost Paris, or her own lost love, as from a profound sense of wasted time. Somehow she had let her life slip by, achieving nothing. She did not suppose, in her hours of regret, that she had ever had mind enough to achieve a great work, like Monsieur Proust. Perhaps she hadn’t mind enough to achieve work of even modest scope - yet it did seem to her that she had mind enough and sufficient individuality that she ought to have achieved more. Her mother had always hoped she would write, or, failing that, sing, but she had done neither. She had, in the end, merely lived, partaking rather fully of the human experience, absorbing it, and yet doing nothing with it. That was the common way, of course, and yet the knowledge that she had not transcended the common way left her discontented, restless. It seemed to her that her problem may have been that she absorbed experience too avidly - so avidly that she had never taken time really to think about it’ (pp. 559-60).

Nothing could be further from Aurora or from McMurtry’s style than the world of Proust, but there is a knowingness in his characters which is, in its way, an American equivalent of Proust’s ruminations and his highly-textured exploration of the centre of the self. It is not woven, however, from threads of delicate, self-obsessed introspection. Instead, it is crafted from the exploration of roles and tasks and quips and endurance - out there in the social division of layer, not holed up in a cork-lined chambre. The choice of Proust in this passage, like the offer of a Renoir to the daughter in Terms of Endearment must betoken a deliberate juxtaposition of civilisations - Paris, as compared with Paris, Texas, as it were.

This reminded me of a poignant passage in The Last Picture Show, where Lois Farrow reveals to Sonny, her daughter’s duped boyfriend, her nostalgia about her secret love affair with Sam the Lion twenty years earlier, when she was twenty-two and newly-married and Sam’s boys had died and his wife had gone mad. ‘"But you know somethin’," she said, her whole body shaking. "It’s terrible to find only one man your whole life who knows what it’s worth, Sonny. It’s just terrible. I wouldn’t be tellin’ you if it wasn’t. I’ve looked, too - you wouldn’t bu-lieve how I’ve looked., When Sam... the Lion was seventy years old he could just walk in... I don’t know, hug me and call me Lois or somethin an’ do more for me than anybody. He really knew what I was worth, an’ the rest of them haven’t, not one man in this whole country"’ (pp. 198-99).

There are a lot of disappointed people in McMurtry’s novels, people who carry on, not usually seeing the point of it all but making a point of enduring and trying to keep their dignity in awful situations. I know I am making it sound pretty sombre, but he also shows the humour and irony in people’s ridiculous messes. He also offers a path to insight into the hearts of people which I find refreshing, touching and helpful. I suppose I should add that he and I grew up very near each other in East Texas. He lived in a small country town, Archer, and I grew up in a fancy suburb of Dallas, Highland Park. I never cease to marvel at his ability to capture and convey what it was like to grow up in a part of the world, where people are so crazy and extreme and yet still possess a kind of strength in the face of the bleakness of life and versions of integrity which are part of humanity at its best.

Here is a list of his novels.

 

Horseman, Pass By, 1961 (film: ‘Hud’, 1963)

 

Leaving Cheyenne, 1963 (film, ‘Lovin’ Molly’, 1973)

 

The Last Picture Show, 1966 (film, 1971)

 

Moving On, 1970

All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers, 1972

 

Terms of Endearment, 1975 (film, 1983)

 

Somebody’s Darling, 1978

 

Cadillac Jack, 1982

 

Desert Rose, 1983

 

Lonesome Dove, 1985 (tv mini-series, 1989)

 

Some Can Whistle, 1989

 

Buffalo Girls, 1991

 

Texasville, 1987 (film, 1991?)

 

Anything for Billy, 1988

 

The Evening Star, 1992

There are two collections of essays:

 

In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas, 1968

 

Film Flam: Essays on Hollywood, 1987

And one critical study:

 

Larry McMurtry’s Texas: Evolution of the Myth

Austin: Eakin Press, 1987

Copyright: The Author

Address for correspondence: 26 Freegrove Road, London N7 9RQ

robert@rmy1.demon.co.uk


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