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When Optimism Isn't Enough : A journey of mourning and moving on : THE LATE CHILD, By Larry McMurtry (Simon & Schuster: $25; 461 pp.)

June 04, 1995|David L. Ulin | David L. Ulin is book editor of the Los Angeles Reader, and the author of "Cape Cod Blues" (Red Dust), a book of poems

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."

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