'Late Child' isn't exactly vintage McMurtry 'Lonesome Dove' author seems to be having an off day.
WILLIAMS Contributing Reviewer
Lonesome Dove, Terms of Endearment, The Last Picture Show - these works have made Larry McMurtry something of a cultural fixture.
His strengths as a writer are many: a keen eye, a propulsive writing style, and an ear with nearly perfect pitch. His characters sound right.
You can hear them thinking, and you can tell who's speaking just from the cadence of the prose.
But even Leonardo had his off days, and The Late Child is something of an off day for McMurtry. The eye is clear, and the ear sharp, but something just doesn't jell here.
Harmony, ``the optimistic showgirl of The Desert Rose,'' is retired in her late forties as The Late Child begins. She receives a letter from New York telling her that her daughter Pepper has died of AIDS. Her boyfriend leaves (no great loss), her Mutt & Jeff sisters arrive from Oklahoma and her precocious son, Eddie, plays Puck with a wisdom far beyond his five and a half years. The four rent a U-Haul trailer and begin an odyssey back to Oklahoma, while Harmony tries to contain her grief.
The U-haul falls into a canyon, and so does the novel. The four decide to fly to New York, trading their broken-down auto for a ride to Albuquerque's airport.
Once in New York, Eddie and his newly acquired puppy, Iggy Pop, manage to adopt a teen-age street hustler, Sheba, along with her boyfriend Otis (a pimp who lives in a dumpster); three ``ragheads'' who run gypsy cabs out of La Guardia; and Pepper's lover, Laurie.
Iggy falls from the Statue of Liberty and survives. Eddie and Iggy are instant national celebrities, appearing on Larry King's and David Letterman's shows and receiving an invitation to the White House - which they eventually accept.
The carnival pulls out of town, and by the time they arrive at the White House everyone but Laurie and Harmony's sisters decide to go back to New York.
They fly to Oklahoma. We meet Harmony's cartoonishly dysfunctional family, and she comes to understand that, no matter how insane her Las Vegas life is, it could only be worse in Oklahoma.
The novel itself is meant as a seriocomic elegy, a voyage across a mad America. But the problem lies with the ``coincidences'' necessary to propel the action. The U-Haul falling into Canyon de Chelly is tossed in so absurdly that suspension of disbelief follows that trailer into the depths. The ``celebrity'' of Eddie and Iggy is not only a bit absurd, but even insulting.
The odious use of ``real'' people in novels that E.L. Doctorow popularized in the '70s has rarely seemed less appropriate or more intrusive. Eddie himself seems at first precocious, but, as the novel moves along, he sounds more like the author than a character and could truly use an old-fashioned spanking.
The Oklahoma family emerge as impossible grotesques, and reality seems to leech from the novel altogether.
The master is having an off day. But we wonder what personal tragedy engendered this meditation upon middle age, children and death. The sorrow seems real - only the world in which it takes place doesn't.
Hart Williams is a writer who lives in Eugene, Ore.
© 1995 Hart Williams