Abandoning the large cast of recurring characters who have helped to populate all of his novels since Moving On (1970), Larry McMurtry in Cadillac Jack continues nevertheless to work the same social and psychological territory that has become familiar to readers of his recent fiction. Concerned as usual with the instability of human relationships in an increasingly rootless society, McMurtry offers as his narrator and viewpoint character one Jack McGriff, who, although a Texan by birth and allegiance, now claims no real home except for the lavishly equipped vintage Cadillac that carries him from coast to coast in search of rare collectibles and provides him with a convenient trade-name. Twice married and divorced at thirty-three, Jack still yearns for the rewards of love, marriage, and family; he is reluctant, however, to abandon the mobility that provides him with greater potential profits than those enjoyed by “stationary” dealers who must stock and maintain their own shops. Describing himself as a “scout,” he functions professionally as a middleman between hard-to-find artifacts and avid collectors for whom cost is no object; in the process, he spares the reader few insights into the lives and personalities of the super-rich.
If Somebody’s Darling (1978) is McMurtry’s Hollywood novel, then Cadillac Jack is his Washington novel, paying particular attention to the use and abuse of money and power in the nation’s capital. It is not, however, in any real sense a “political” novel; although politicians and their hangers-on appear frequently, often portrayed in broad caricature (with such names as Khaki Descartes and Dunscombe Cotswinkle), it is clear that McMurtry’s real interest lies not in politics but in the twists and turns of human behavior occasioned by the pursuit of love, sex, and material possessions. Washington hostesses, for example, are notable mainly for their amatory exploits, and one senior correspondent commands the narrator’s attention primarily because of his overweening interest in truncheons, antique billy clubs of which he is presumably the leading American collector.
Indeed, McMurtry’s choice of an antique dealer as his narrator-protagonist allows for thorough exploration of American acquisitiveness in one of its most prevalent current manifestations. Although a few of the collectors from whom Jack buys and to whom he sells have a genuine interest in what they collect, the vast majority value their accumulation of rare objects as mere status symbols, expressions of their often newfound purchasing power. Uniqueness, rather than beauty or intrinsic value, determines the asking price for artifacts often acquired for no better reason than to keep them out of the hands of others.
Skillfully blending psychological analysis with social observation, McMurtry places at the center of his novel the gross, boorish figure of “Boog” Miller, a transplanted Texan political manipulator who epitomizes the mindless collector’s mentality that helps to keep Jack McGriff in business. It is on one of his trips to satisfy his apparently boundless greed that Jack finds himself drawn into the current social orbit of Boog and his wife Boss, in her own right a highly successful executive with a wide range of business interests. For Jack, the principal attraction is one Cindy Sanders, an upwardly mobile yet oddly insecure young Californian with three retail shops of her own. Throughout most of the novel, Jack surveys the prevailing social scene as Cindy’s chosen escort, increasingly vulnerable to the woman’s unconventional and potentially dangerous charm. At one party, he watches with mixed indignation and amusement as the carefully chosen, well-dressed guests attack the buffet table in a scene not unlike that to be observed in a zoo at feeding time; on another occasion, an elegant hostess casually places her two aging pug dogs on the banquet table where they proceed to wreak various kinds of havoc, incidentally devouring a portion of coq au vin left untouched by a talkative and absentminded legislator. “Now that is an upper-class thing,” exclaims a Georgetown matron seated next to Jack.
For most of his career, McMurtry has been known for his portrayal of strong, often enigmatic female characters whose behavior continues to baffle the men with whom they occasionally become involved. In Moving On, for example, it is Patsy Carpenter and not her husband Jim whose quest for identity and sexual fulfillment animates the action of the novel; similarly, in Cadillac Jack, the narrator and title character serves mainly as a foil (and occasional plaything) for strong-minded women currently working out their destinies. Jack McGriff, like many of McMurtry’s male characters, remains totally masculine yet emotionally immature, seemingly incapable of keeping the type of woman to whom he is habitually attracted. Even as he finds himself attracted to Cindy Sanders, and almost simultaneously to the petite but willful near-divorcée Jean Arber, Jack holds frequent and affectionate conversations with one of his former wives over the mobile telephone in his car. Partially illuminating the picture of Jack’s love life is a long-lit torch for Boss Miller, whose mature beauty and seemingly effortless authority appear to represent Jack’s eventual ideal. He has the common sense, however, to admire Boss from afar as she satisfies her own needs with a variety of lovers, including an Israeli poet known as Micah Leviticus who currently resides within the Miller household. Throughout the action, moreover, McMurtry leaves little doubt that Jack is the author of many of his own amatory misfortunes: although quick to fall in love, Jack is more than a little fickle himself, never quite able to decide what he really wants or expects from a woman, or from which one. By the time he appears ready to make up his mind, it is quite probably too late.
Embodying many of the current stereotypes concerning her home state of...
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