Book Review: Readings
Reviewed by Mark Busby, Fri., July 13, 2001
Paradiseby Larry McMurtry
Simon & Schuster, 159 pp., $24
On board the Aranui, a freighter out of Tahiti, watching deckhands handle tight cables, Larry McMurtry confesses that he is leery of taut lines, having at 15 seen an oil field worker decapitated when a line snapped. This memory serves as a metaphor for this tight little book, another in the series of memory projects that McMurtry has undertaken in the past few years in Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen (1999) and Roads (2000). On one hand, this is a travel book about visiting the South Sea islands of Gauguin and Melville, the fertile paradise of the title. But it is also tautly tied to that little arid postage stamp of soil that is the homeland of McMurtry's heart, Archer County, Texas, where he was born and raised and where his parents lived out their difficult marriage. Memory connects us irrevocably to people and places in ways that both sustain and limit. For a writer like McMurtry, that tension is the heart and soul of his work. Charting the twains of heaven and hell, ecstasy and agony, is the cartography of the writer and the terrain of Paradise.
Such varieties of tension pull the peripatetic writer throughout the book. On the one hand, he rails against the creeping capitalism that is now rampant, so that the unloading of Coca-Cola cases indicates the entry of the serpent into the Garden. On the other, his need to connect to home because his mother's death looms on the horizon leads him to complain about the cost of phone cards, the scarcity of phone booths, or the locals hogging the phones that are available. Like Roads, where McMurtry drove the interstates back to Archer City, this is a curmudgeonly travel book. While the traveling writer becomes the observer of his little band of travelers and clearly likes some of them, many of them strike him as obnoxious, boring, or lacking in respect for his need for privacy. They find him odd for refusing to drink the wine and for being unmarried at 64. The gap between the South Seas islands that captivated Captain Cook, Melville, Gauguin, Henry Adams, Robert Louis Stevenson (who thought Anaho Bay the most beautiful place in the world, McMurtry tells us several times), Thor Heyerdahl, and Jacques Brel and the current stop for the tourist boat produces another tension for McMurtry. But soon, when he has the chance to walk 40 minutes to see the second-largest tiki in the Marquesas, and again to the consternation of his boat mates, McMurtry chooses to stay on board and read Melville's Typee. Later he eschews a "Polynesian fete" for Joan Didion's White Album, "not exactly a cheerful book, but it easily beats Polynesian night."
For those who have followed McMurtry throughout his career, this book is less interesting as a travel book than as another entry into the McMurtry memory project brought on after the unease produced by his heart bypass surgery in the early 1990s. That life is bound by two main elements -- his growing up on the ranch near Archer City, the son of Hazel and Jeff McMurtry and son and grandson of ranchers, and his becoming a man of books as reader, collector-dealer, and writer. The two are combined in the numerous works McMurtry has written over the years, and those books demonstrate, just as this one does, that we rarely touch the world head-on but usually filter it through art, literature, or film.
The best of those works lead directly into the most fundamental of human questions about desire and enmity, love and hate, life and death, present and past. All along the way here, as McMurtry responds to his experiences by filtering them through his reading, he makes interesting and sometimes profound observations. After one of the passengers observes that McMurtry seems sad, he thinks of his dying mother and contemplates the sea and sadness:
It may be that I'm suffering a kind of metaphysical diminishment, in relation to the vastness, the majesty, and the eternality of the sea. On the sea, it is easy to imagine oneself perishing, but it's impossible to imagine the sea perishing. Only cataclysms of galactic scope could much affect the sea. Being on the sea reminds one of one's limits -- it defines the human margins in a new way.
Passages like this are the real journey of Paradise, quick voyages into the depths of the human heart with a seasoned navigator who knows the routes in their beauty, boredom, and dangers. In the end, it serves as a postcard from child to mom, recalling love before knowledge but written long after the fall.
Mark Busby's novel, Fort Benning Blues, and the essay collection he co-edited, From Texas to the World and Back: Essays on the Journeys of Katherine Anne Porter, were published this spring.