Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 834
In Cadillac Jack, McMurtry, drawing on his background as a scout locating rare editions of books, takes readers into the world of antique dealers and scouts, flea markets, auctions, and garage sales, a subculture that provides meaning to the lives of thousands of Americans. Like McMurtry, Cadillac Jack is a displaced Texan living in the Washington, D.C., area.
Jack McGriff—called Cadillac Jack because of his pearl-colored Cadillac—is an antique scout. He combs the United States, locating special items for dealers and collectors. As he gets older he gets pickier, only wanting exceptional items; he is no longer satisfied with the merely first-rate. Exceptional objects can be rare items, such as Billy the Kid’s boots or Rudolph Valentino’s silver cobra hubcaps, or they can be beautiful items such as the Sung vase he found in a junk barn in De Queen, Arkansas. Cadillac Jack is a legend in his subculture—doing what every flea-market and garage-sale addict dreams of doing: He finds treasure among junk. Jack paid $20 for the Sung vase and sold it for more than $100,000. He buys the objects that he falls in love with, but he keeps them only a short time. If he loses his discipline and cannot bring himself to sell what he buys, then he will become a collector or an antique dealer. He will have lost the calling that gives his life purpose.
Cadillac Jack is not strong on plot. Jack does have a problem with women, however. He falls in love with nearly any (beautiful) woman who is in trouble. As the story opens, Jack has just met the beautiful social climber Cindy Sanders, who owns three fashionable shops, including an antique store. Cindy is a self-centered beauty, with little awareness of anyone or anything outside herself. Her beauty attracts Jack, and her antique shop seems to promise some common interest. Jack finds that she really has no knowledge or appreciation of antiques, but he thinks that if he can get her on his turf he can divert her from her fixation on dominating the Washington social scene. He proposes that she hold a boot show and exhibit an exotic collection that he can find for her, topped by Billy the Kid’s boots.
Meanwhile, Jack meets Jean Arber and her two charming daughters. Jean owns a little antique shop and knows her business. She is lovely and is a quiet, family-oriented woman. Jack also falls in love with her. This complicates matters, as Jack had not fallen out of love with Cindy—or his two former wives or various other girlfriends.
Jack and his loves provide a slim plot on which McMurtry can hang his satire of Washington. Jack attends parties with the nation’s governmental and journalistic elite and finds most of them so bored and boring that it is often difficult to tell whether they are living or dead. Not many congressmen appear, evidently because they spend considerable time cavorting with the prostitutes at places such as Little Bomber’s Lounge. In the background are the gray little bureaucrats inhabiting gray little cells in gray office buildings and apartments.
Some of McMurtry’s characters are unforgettable. Boog Miller, a fat Texan with slicked-down hair, is a wheeler-dealer on the scale of Lyndon Johnson. He owns Winkler County, Texas, and all the oil underneath it. When he is not manipulating the politicians on Capitol Hill, he is enjoying the beauties at Little Bomber’s or reading the works of historians and philosophers. Jack visits legendary collectors, among them Benny the Ghost, who materializes at auctions to buy the one good piece and then dematerializes. Jack is the only one who has visited Benny’s five-story home jammed with twenty thousand to thirty thousand exceptional antiques.
Jack buys boots from the oil-rich, drug-crazed Little Joe Twine, who lives near Archer City, Texas. Little Joe is the most bizarre of the debris left in the wake of the collapse of the Old West, an extreme symbol of the empty lives of oil-rich, uneducated, former ranchers who have no purpose. He and his cowboys spend their days taking drugs and watching pornographic movies on Joe’s wall-size television.
Jack’s dream of a life with Cindy falls through when she marries a rich and powerful member of the Washington elite. His relationship with Jean falters when he destroys her trust by lying to her. Jack explains that he only lies to try to reach a higher and “happier truth,” but Jean does not understand his ethical concept.
Jack finds peace and sanity by motion, by moving over the open road. The open range is no longer there, but thousands of miles of highway lie under the American sky. Jack leaves Washington for points west. As he drives, he almost comes to an understanding of his relationship with beautiful women and with beautiful objects, he says, but then he starts thinking about the approaching city of St. Louis and loses interest in the question.
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