BOOK REVIEW / New terms in Texas: The Evening Star - Larry McMurtry: Orion, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Online
IT'S HARD not to make the obvious comparisons between Larry McMurtry's literary output and his native state of Texas. Both are big. Both sprawl. And both pump out the goods with regularity, like a herd of bobbing oil-rigs.

The Evening Star is provisionally a sequel to McMurtry's 1975 novel, Terms of Endearment, which was filmed with Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson. That book's central protagonist is Aurora Greenway, a middle-aged New Englander who outlives the husband who brought her to Houston. Because she's selfish enough to have a good time with just about anybody, Aurora earns the love and admiration of a variety of odd, lonely men who find that, until they met Aurora, they had been taking the world much too seriously.

'I was brought up never to flinch from a scene when a scene is called for,' Aurora declares at one point. 'All that remains to be determined is the extent of the scene I shall make.' Aurora's suitors include a five-star General, a wheeler-dealer who sleeps in his car, a harried bank executive and an ageing yachtsman. (None of these suitors, incidentally, even remotely resembles Jack Nicholson's character of the well-oiled astronaut, which was designed to give the film a more appropriate-looking leading man.)

Terms of Endearment was a sort of Tex-Mex version of Jane Austen in which Aurora expounds freely on men, love, family, home, politeness and so forth. Eventually she chooses the irritable General from among her suitors and ruthlessly discards the rest. Meanwhile, her daughter Emma endures a bad marriage, a series of sad infidelities, and a slow fatal bout with cancer. That, briefly, is Terms of Endearment. The book, not the movie.

The Evening Star opens almost 20 years later. Early in the novel the General says, 'Well, we've lasted, sort of.' And Aurora replies: ' 'Sort of' is right.' The General, now aged 85, has broken both legs after overturning his golf-cart, and is being kept upstairs at Aurora's where he complains about everything, and lets his robe hang lewdly open - especially when company's coming. Rosie, the live-in maid, is dating an elderly man who can only get it up in the back seats of parked automobiles, and dumps him for a prison guard addicted to heroine.

Emma's three children are now either clinically mad, pregnant, or imprisoned for murder - or some combination thereof. And it's at this point, of course, that 70-year-old Aurora starts to feel bored. To get the charge back in her life, she goes looking for a new lover, and finally selects a fortyish unlicensed marriage counsellor named Jerry.

In McMurtry's Texas, the comic and tragic are often indistinguishable from one another. People are constantly being stabbed, shot, and run over by trucks. They grow old, die, fall in and out of love, suffer heartbreak, strokes, dementia and bad dreams. It's customary for a McMurtry character (in this case, Rosie) to say things such as: 'I ain't been hit in the eye that hard since Royce clobbered me that time I tried to stab him.' It's a world ruled by human emotions - irrational, violent, totally unpredictable, and funny as hell.

The Evening Star is not one of McMurtry's best novels. But for hundreds of pages its pace is reckless, its comedy hilarious, and its characters convincing. As far as its British audience is concerned, though, this novel's biggest problem is not literary, but commercial. Orion has published it at a time when Terms of Endearment itself is out of print and impossible to find anywhere - believe me, I've tried. When I contacted the book's editor and publicist to obtain a copy of the 'prequel', they suggested I try either McMurtry's literary agent, or his American publisher. In other words: contact somebody who cares.

McMurtry has long deserved better attention in the UK, but he won't get it so long as he's published like this. Until both Terms of Endearment and The Evening Star are available, readers would probably be better off buying The Last Picture Show and its sequel, Texasville. Not only are these better books, but they're both readily available in paperback from Pan.