THE DESERT ROSE  by Larry McMurtry


A Novel
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After the ambitious dark-comedy of Somebody's Darling and the satiric sprawl of Cadillac Jack, McMurtry returns here to the affectionate, life-sized, gently biting portraiture of Terms of Endearment and The Last Picture Show. Harmony is a veteran Las Vegas showgirl, toplessly approaching age 39, long-separated from shrimpy husband Ross, recently involved with crass Denny. . . who has just stolen her long-awaited $1300 insurance check. ("In the love area she didn't have such great brakes. . . . The sadness of men, once it got into their eyes, affected her a lot, she sort of couldn't bear it and would usually try and make it go away if the circumstances permitted her to. . . .") But Harmony's biggest problem, whether she fully knows it or not, is her cold-hearted teenage daughter Pepper--who's even more beautiful than Harmony, who loathes Harmony's clothes ("Every single blouse you've got is tacky"), who drips scorn on her optimistic, emotional, sentimental mother. And the novel's small arc of action is the inevitable see-sawing of these two lives--Pepper going up, Harmony on the way down. For dance-student Pepper, there's an audition at the casino where Harmony works, impressing even nasty boss Bonventre ("if you worked for him your body was his to condemn"); there's also the kinky courtship of super-rich, 45-ish Mel--a proud voyeur who pays grand sums to photograph Pepper in antique lingerie and proposes marriage. For Harmony, on the other hand, there's best-friend Jessie's ankle-shattering fall during a show ("'For Christ's sake, she only fell six or eight feet, will you stop making it into an Ann-Margret situation?' Bonventre said, he sort of looked bored"); there's a grim date with ex-Marine Dave, a mercenary-magazine aficionado who shares his beloved K rations, even opening three different kinds ("For him it was a big deal, sort of like taking her to a fancy restaurant or something"); and, predictably, there's the numbing shock of getting fired from the casino--though all these traumas will push Harmony into a gallant stab at reconciliation with Ross, now bald and more potato-faced than ever. (But "he still had the soft little Kansas voice, plus best of all Ross still had the sweet eyes.") True, McMurtry's folksy narration occasionally gets a bit mannered--with flaky digressions, the paragraph-long sentence runons, the recurrent "sort of." And, however endearing, Harmony never quite breaks out of the familiar dumb/sweet/gallant mold. But Pepper is a formidably unsentimental creation, the supporting cast is lovably eccentric (Harmony's housemates include goats, peacocks, and garage-sale-maven Myrtle)--and, even if not every deep, this is an ingratiating closeup of wounded-yet-cheerful souls, steadily alive with modest insights and low-key humor.
Pub Date: Sept. 6th, 1983
ISBN: 0684853841
Page count: 260pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 1983


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