Several years before publishing Lonesome Dove, his hugely successful, Pulitzer Prize-winning saga of an 1880s cattle drive, Larry McMurtry wrote a literary manifesto in The Texas Observer scolding other Texas novelists for remaining fixated on the past. What his native state needed, he argued, was a contemporary Dickens or Balzac to chronicle its emergent urban culture. So what has McMurtry done since Lonesome Dove? Well, written one novel about Billy the Kid and another about Calamity Jane, among other things. His 15th novel, The Evening Star, however, finds the prolific author back on familiar ground: the humid freeways of Houston, land of strong-willed, lusty, indomitable women and the spineless men who inevitably fail them.
Aurora Greenway, readers of McMurtry’s fine 1975 novel Terms of Endearment will recall, has known more than her share of disappointments. Since the death of her daughter, Emma, with which that novel ended, she’s had trouble holding a man who can hold his own. ”I’ve got a grandson in prison,” she complains to her maid, confidant, and inseparable companion, Rosie, ”another grandson who’s in and out of mental hospitals, and a granddaughter who’s pregnant and is not even sure she can identify the father. Why should I care about male capabilities, or male anything? I should just forget it.”
Aurora’s 86-year-old companion, Gen. Hector Scott, has not only become impotent, but developed the annoying habit of walking around her River Oaks home completely nude. Nearing 70, an awful lot of women would resign themselves to sitting in the kitchen with Rosie and watching CNN. But not Aurora. First she decides that she and the general require psychotherapy, then decides to seduce the 40-year-old analyst. ”I’ve often felt a fool,” she admits, ”but I guess this is the first time in my life that I’ve felt like an old fool.”
To Aurora’s delight and the dismay of several older suitors, the shrink proves a pushover. But then everybody in McMurtry’s Texas has got the itch, and nobody’s the least bit shy about scratching. Not that it ever gives them much satisfaction. Aurora herself can hardly get one lover into his grave before she’s wooing another.
Alas, for all of Aurora’s earthy charm, readers are likely to find the whole novel a bit too much — too rambling, digressive, and repetitious to sustain its themes. Like some of McMurtry’s less successful early novels — Moving On and All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers come to mind — The Evening Star has enough incidents and characters for a half-dozen novels. But while endlessly inventive, McMurtry can’t seem to decide whether his characters deserve pity or scorn. Musing upon her own life, Patsy Carpenter-a younger rival of Aurora’s earlier featured in Terms of Endearment and Moving On — now frets that ”her future might turn out to be just as full of jerks and failures as her past had been. Not only was she not likely to find Mr. Right, ! but it didn’t even seem likely that she would manage Mr. Halfway Right, or perhaps even Mr. Tolerable. Her marriages, so far, had been awful, and her love affairs insignificant.”
This time out, an awful lot of Larry McMurtry’s readers, alas, will probably agree. B-