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Fiction reviews

 

Larry McMurtry - Some Can Whistle

19 October 1989

Some Can Whistle
Larry McMurtry
Century


Published in The Australian


If real estate has its three first principles, so too does fiction: they are character, character, character. From character a story is born, and through the hidden inevitabilities of character it is resolved.

In this book, Larry McMurtry plays a most unusual game with this law. For the first half, at least, the characters seem no more than composites of cheap eccentricities. The action, accordingly, comprises little more than a string of special effects. And nothing much connects with anything else.

To be specific: the narrator, Danny Beck, is a 51-year-old former televison writer, who made more money out of his hit sitcom than he could ever hope to spend. He lives in a remote Texas mansion, which he almost never leaves. His housemate is Godwin, an oldish, bisexual classical scholar who never quite gets round to finishing his book on "Euripidean elements in the music of the Rolling Stones", and who spends his nights cruising neighbouring areas for pick-ups. Danny's housekeeper is Gladys, who seems a modern incarnation of Hazel (if you remember her): in other words a loudmouthed frump with a heart of gold, who doesn't mind helping herself to the pate.

The story starts with the three of them breakfasting. The phone rings: it is the daughter Danny fathered 22 years earlier, and has never seen. She utters a few tantalising words about how they should meet, and hangs up. Danny, who has been bored and alienated for several years, is intrigued. The daughter (her name is "T.R.") rings back several more times and does the same thing.

At various junctures over the next 200 pages we get details of Danny's television career, including plot resumes of several episodes of his ghastly sitcom; lengthy phone messages from former girlfriends, none of whom he now sees in the flesh; conversations with Godwin ranging from the sublime (Greek philosophy) to the ridiculous (Godwin's bashings by unwisely-propositioned gas pump attendants); as well as (what one hopes is) the central story.

The central story involves Danny's driving off to Houston to find TR, and rescue her from her hamburger joint, a homicidal ex-boyfriend and poverty. Once ensconced in Danny's mansion (along with her current boyfriend, Muddy) TR goes through his money like water; her two children throw 600 videos into his swimming pool; Muddy uses an AK47 to blow up a 58,000 gallon oil tank on the property; and so on. Meanwhile we hear more about TR's past - notably that her embittered mother sent back Danny's 44 successive birthday and Christmas presents, without telling her they'd arrived; and that Earl Dee (the ex-boyfriend) wants to kill her for going off with Muddy. She has a child to each of them, by the way - and Danny's growing closeness with his grandchildren plays an integral part in what seems, at last, to be the point of the story: Danny's re-humanisation.

But that's wrong too. McMurtry, despite his simple style, does not tell a simple story. The novel's ultimate theme is revealed so late it would be improper to broach it here. For the moment it is sufficient to report that - the early melodrama notwithstanding - much of this story is both mundane and unpredictable. Trivia and non sequiturs abound. When TR's little son vomits up crayons, or when TR tells Danny of the exploitation she suffered as a child, and cries, and gets mad, and drinks a lot of margaritas, and cries again - it all rings terribly true. So does Danny's utter passivity in the face of her every mood, annoying though it is.

In McMurtry's masterful Anything For Billy (reviewed here in January) the banality and the bleakness of the characters and the story come together to form an overwhelmingly powerful whole, much larger than the sum of its parts. The same is true here, eventually. However this story's elements are more numerous, and much further apart - and thus take far longer to coalesce. You can get impatient, in the interim, sitting through more of the sitcom, or the depressing monologues on the answering machine, or seeing Godwin fail in love again - while "the real story" seemingly goes nowhere. The way McMurtry brings such disparateness together in the end; and gets his early, extravagant colours to merge into an entirely naturalistic canvas; and clothes so much cardboard with flesh - borders on alchemy.

Does this extraordinary eleventh hour coup redeem the novel as a whole? My internal jury is still out on that one. Most of the notes I made while reading it ("pedestrian", "cheap amusement", "narrator has no volition", "story all over the place") point to a novelist trying hard to be clever. This is an especial mistake for McMurtry, because he is not actually a clever writer: for example his dialogue is rarely witty, and his imagery is plain.

But he is much better than clever. And he finishes this book on a note of quite awesome power. Is the early attempt at cleverness a ruse, to lower our expectations? Is it intended to parallel Danny's rather prosaic personality? Or did the author simply fail to extract the digit till the jaws of defeat had gnawed it awhile?

The answer may vary from reader to reader, depending on levels of sophistication, patience and charity.


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