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Odyssey to Nowhere McMurtryS Latest Traces the Landscape of the Lost BY LOUIS DUBOSE THE LATE CHILD By Larry McMurtry. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995 461 pp., $25.00 FOR THE DOGGED CIA AGENT in Manuel Vasquez Montalban’ s brilliantly executed but dreadfully trans lated Galindez, Las Vegas in general and Debbie Reynolds in particular represent America. They are, the Spanish novelist suggests, what this country is for most Europeans: appealing when seen from from afar, appalling at close range. Viewed from a front-row seat at a Las Vegas show, Reynolds’ smile becomes a painful rictus; if the aging showgirl were to relax for a second her cosmetic facade would collapse. It’s an altogether ac -cessible metaphor, as easy to execute for its author in 1991 as was the novel’s eponymous CIA in 1954. In his 19th novel, Larry McMurtry turns that metaphor on its head. The center cannot hold; Las Vegas, not Okla homa, becomes the heart of the heartland. And as bad as Las Vegas is, it’s not nearly as bad the rest of the countrycertainly not as bad as small-town Oklahoma, once the home of the novel’s protagonist. Harmony, the aging showgirl from Desert Rose, lacks some of the appeal of Leaving Cheyenne’s Molly, or Emma from Moving On, All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers, and Terms of Endearment. But she’s a woman of considerable strength and character, and far better than anyone she left behind in Tarwater, Oklahoma. “The highway is always better than the inn,” Cervantes wrote, in what was more likely advice to writers than a comment on the state of hostelry in post-reconquista Spain. This novel, divided into three parts, of which Book Two is clearly the weakest, begins with the news of the death of Harmony’s daughter, Pepper, in New York. With the arrival of a letter with that news, The Late Child takes to the road. Harmony leads her glib five-year-old son, her two sisters from Tarwater, her deceased daughter’s lover, a homeless black prostitute and her dumpster-diving husband, several serviceeconomy hustlers from India, a washed-up would-be lounge singer named Sonny Le Song and an adopted stray dog named Iggy Pop on a preposterous odyssey that wends its way through the Grand Canyon, New York, the White House, Tulsa, Tarwater and finally home to Las Vegas. There are times when the reader might wish that Harmony had done her grieving in Vegas, where Gary, a generous and complex middle-aged gay casino employee, is unfortunately left behind. The unexplored potential of his character is one of the novel’s disappointments. But McMurtry, whose work is often a series of sequels and who might have coined the term “prequel,” has been known to return and explore characters once abandoned. There are other reasons why the inn, in this case, is better than the highway. Like the Indian guides, bus drivers, and baggage handlers, The Late Child loses its bearings about the time it arrives in Newark and only gets back on track when it checks into the Best Western in Tulsa and the house to which Harmony will never return in Tarwater. It’s a road novel whose best moments occur indoors. The mid-passages of this novel, where far too many staccato exchanges of dialogue advance the story, is weakestin part because the New York-to-Washington segment of the story is so improbable that it approaches comic fantasy. The Indian drivers tend to be cartoonish, Sonny Le Song is something of a caricature, and Iggy Pop’s leap from the top of the Statue of Libertya fall that lands him a spot on the Letterman Show and a helicopter ride with Bill and Hillarywould make the cut as one of Letterman’s stupid pet tricks. \(Twenty years ago, however, I thought several characters in Terms of Endearment were caricatures until I came to know one family in In Book Three, where the story moves on to Oklahomaleaving behind the Indians, Sonny Le Song and the black couplenarrative , begins to displace dialogue and the story recovers some of the force it lost midway. McMurtry has always been a master at infusing a third-person omniscient narrative with what might be described as a firstperson dramatic voice. In his narratives he allows his characters to have their say, without giving himself over to them. And his best charactersoften women, whom he develops with a skill that in some instances will remind readers of Hardy or Flauberthave something to say. Often they say it better in narrative than in .dialogue: Peewee smiled a little smileit re minded her of Ross, whom she hadn’t called. The way Peewee smiled touched Harmony, so many men smiled that smile: maybe they had ex pected to be sports heroes or make a lot of money or marry a movie star; or maybe they did n’t even aim that high. Maybe they just thought they could run a nice little business, or have a happy family or something; but, then, before they knew it, a lot of life slipped by, with none of the above happening. Then it seemed they began to expect less and less, until the day came when they didn’t expect anything at allmaybe they still expected to breathe, or to watch television, maybe see a ball game now and then, but that was about where such men’s expectations seemed to stop. Tarwater, where Harmony’s brother Billy prefers playing dominoes in the county jail to watching television at home, is filled with such men. Like Johnny, from songwriter James McMurtry’s Candyland album, Billy, who once quarterbacked the high school football team, had achieved all the youthful success small-town America affords. When he leaves home, he is again like the James McMurtry character, who “snapped out of the groove, he saw both sides of everything and found he could not move.” And Billy’s one of the stronger men in Tarwater, where weak men make for unhappy women. Harmony’s sisters, one a sex addict, the other unhappily in love with her brother-in-law, arrive in Las Vegas to help Harmony deal with the death of her daughter and are instead rescued by their grieving sister. Larry McMurtry, like his songwriter son She won’t find any direction there, where her parents’ generation has been displaced by the degenerations following. 16 JULY 14, 1995