Departing from the Texas setting and characters familiar to readers of his first half-dozen novels, Larry McMurtry has in recent years expanded the scope of his observation to include such other quintessentially American locations as Hollywood (Somebody’s Darling, 1978) and Washington, D.C. (Cadillac Jack, 1982). In The Desert Rose, McMurtry turns his attentions to Las Vegas, with results that at first glance leave a great deal to be desired.
Throughout his career as a novelist, McMurtry has experienced considerable difficulty with the handling of narrative voice, operating most successfully (as in the recent Cadillac Jack) through the recorded perceptions of a first-person, limited-viewpoint narrator. Elsewhere, as in his otherwise exemplary The Last Picture Show (1966), McMurtry tends to strain the reader’s credulity by speaking for too many of his characters at once. In The Desert Rose, while cannily avoiding the trap of multiple viewpoints, McMurtry nevertheless disconcerts his reader by limiting his third-person narration to the viewpoint and vocabulary of the novel’s principal character, a Las Vegas show girl in her late thirties whose formal education ended in high school.
However laudable in its intentions, in its efforts toward realism, McMurtry’s narrative technique tends ultimately toward condescension, affecting characters and reader alike. It is difficult, after reading more than two hundred pages of barely literate narrative, to care about characters whose author has presented them with such readily apparent, if veiled condescension. One suspects that, in real life, a character such as Harmony would be both more literate and more perceptive than she is in McMurtry’s novel. If indeed she would not, McMurtry then faces the more serious charge of treating his characters utterly without compassion. A similar charge, incidentally, might be leveled against McMurtry’s earlier novel Terms of Endearment (1975), which was adapted into a powerful motion picture. Those who have seen and enjoyed the 1983 James Brooks film will probably be disappointed if they turn to McMurtry’s novel, where the characters are portrayed with so little compassion as to appear downright disagreeable and undeserving of the reader’s empathy.
To be sure, those readers with sufficient interest or patience to look beneath the repellent surface texture of The Desert Rose will find amused, amusing social satire of the sort that has made McMurtry justly famous, with entertaining glimpses of American characters of a sort which other writers tend to overlook. A case in point in The Desert Rose is Harmony’s neighbor Myrtle, an aging borderline alcoholic who keeps a dog-sized pet goat named Maude; her life, apart from Maude, appears to revolve around garage sales. Notable also, in general, are the cast and crew of floor shows at the Stardust Casino, where glitter hides a daily grind of quiet desperation. One of the novel’s few memorable incidents occurs when Harmony’s friend Jessie is incapacitated by the collapse of the suspended platform upon which she regularly performs; by the time Jessie’s broken ankle heals, she will in all likelihood have lost her job. Harmony, too, stands to be fired from the show, on the occasion of her upcoming thirty-ninth birthday.
The major plot device of The Desert Rose is that of increasing conflict between parent and child. Harmony’s adolescent daughter, Pepper, trained after school throughout most of her short life in the arts of song and dance, is approaching full maturity both in talent and in beauty, if not necessarily in judgment. Harmony’s forced retirement, perhaps indeed somewhat overdue, has been engineered by the Stardust’s choreographer-director, Jackie Bonventre, who wants to train Pepper as a lead singer-dancer and finds it inappropriate for a mother and daughter to perform nightly on the same stage. The narrative, at times approaching stream of consciousness, hunts back and forth in time, with frequent flashbacks to Harmony’s own start in Las Vegas at age seventeen and her discovery by an aging French-born director, grossly overweight, whose fatal heart attack some six months later might well be traced to his enjoyment of Harmony’s favors in bed. Thus launched, Harmony’s career, notable mainly for its stability, has proceeded more or less without incident for more than twenty years. Harmony, lacking vocal talent, has never aspired to more than a secure spot in the Stardust chorus line, which under normal circumstances...
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