A sitcom between covers


THE EVENING STAR. By Larry McMurtry. Simon & Schuster. 637 pages. $23.

FIFTY pages into "The Evening Star," Larry McMurtry's long sequel to "Terms of Endearment," I hated it. Fifty more pages and I began to think, well, maybe it isn't so bad after all. Another 50 pages and I was so enthralled with Aurora and Rosie and the General and Patsy and Melanie and Tommy and Teddy and Jane and Bump that I could hardly put the book down.

The funny thing is, I was back to hating it again. Reading this book, I felt the way I do when someone convinces me I should watch the hottest new sitcom on TV. I am appalled that I'm wasting my time on such drivel.

Mr. McMurtry's new novel, like most if not all of the rest, is set in Texas, specifically Houston, where Aurora Greenway, now in her late 60s but still as lusty and outspoken as ever, consoles herself for the General's impotence by having affairs with Pascal Ferney, a minor official in the French consulate, and her therapist, Jerry Bruckner, a former stand-up comic who sets up shop after inheriting his stepfather's psychoanalytic library.

Aurora visits Jerry in an attempt to resolve her differences with her old boyfriend, Gen. Hector Scott, who is now in his 90s and has become increasingly cranky and forgetful (mostly, he forgets to wear his clothes). Aurora's grandchildren, whom she raised after the death of her daughter Emma, aren't much help. Teddy, the eldest, is in prison for killing his girlfriend during a busted drug deal; Tommy and his live-in lover, Jane, are two geniuses who met in a psychiatric hospital and produced a son, Bump, another genius who won't talk; and Melanie is overweight, pregnant and not sure who the baby's father is.

There's a large supporting cast, too, but you get the idea. This is soap opera, and at first blush it's hard to imagine the writer of the Pulitzer Prize-winning epic "Lonesome Dove" producing "The Evening Star."

On reflection, however, "Terms of Endearment," "The Last Picture Show" and its sequel, "Texasville," all read like film treatments. Mr. McMurtry's characters increasingly seem straight out of Hollywood films of the 1950s. They're quick with a quip, and they don't bleed when they're shot. They don't speak, either; they deliver lines, and the lines are so cute you can almost hear the laughs dubbed into the sound track.

Example: Rosie, Aurora's sisterly companion, worries that Aurora's Cadillac will be run over by an 18-wheeler that will

"squish us like soup in a can." "This car," says Aurora, "is not a can and we will not be squished like soup. You've chosen a bad figure." "Yeah," says Rosie, "I was always flat-chested, but I didn't choose it, God did it to me." Cue the laugh track.

In Mr. McMurtry's world, women are usually bigger, stronger, wiser and sexier than men. The General is feisty, but he's reduced to whining about being turned out of Aurora's house to a home for old soldiers. Rosie goes through a succession of weak-kneed men who are no match for her rapier wit. And so on.

Obviously, "The Evening Star" is meant to be a reflection on aging and death, themes the author dealt with successfully in "Lonesome Dove."

But in the end, "The Evening Star" doesn't shine. For all of Mr. McMurtry's skill, it is one-dimensional for the most part -- a sitcom between covers.

John F. Kelly writes from Baltimore.

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