The Late Child belongs to the domestic-tragicomedy school of the Larry McMurtry novel, filled with sexy, big-hearted women and the pusillanimous jerks who let them down. Actually, there are two admirable male characters in this, McMurtry's 19th novel: a precocious 5-year-old named Eddie and his doting grandfather. But it's Eddie's mother, Harmony, who's at the story's center.
Once ''the most beautiful showgirl in Las Vegas,'' Harmony, still a knockout at 47, works at a Las Vegas recycling center, and she scrapes by from one paycheck to the next. Even so, Harmony's fairly content. She still has no shortage of male admirers, and she does have little Eddie.
Then comes the bad news: Harmony's grown daughter, Pepper, has died of AIDS in New York City. Stunned and grieving, Harmony and her two sisters pack her meager possessions in a U-Haul and begin their return to the family home in Tarwater, Okla., where Harmony's boy can be brought up right. The three bawdy, wisecracking women, little Eddie, and a foundling dog named Iggy soon find themselves on the kind of comic picaresque journey so familiar to McMurtry's many readers.
Witty and humane as ever, McMurtry has sharply drawn characters, amusing situations, and clever banter to spare. But what he hasn't got here is a terribly compelling story. B-