McMurtry (The Last Picture Show) has perhaps attempted the impossible: he's portraying today's Hollywood, from the inside, in all its glossy ugliness, while at the same time trying to coax from that milieu some tenderness, some equivalent for the dead nostalgia of old-time Hollywood. And in the first third of this novel, it seems that he's truly succeeding--as 63-year-old hack screenwriter Joe Percy tells how he went to New York with hot new director Jill Peel for the opening of her film. Widower Joe is fat and often drunk, but he's also a "proficient adulterer" involved with gorgeous young wives of studio biggies. Still, he's willing to leave his latest flame behind in L.A. and keep Jill company; though 37 and attractive and a seasoned pro, she's childishly awkward and scared of the looming threat of fame. All of this works brilliantly, with Joe's satiric edge driving ever forward; the scenes in N.Y. may become cartoony (a press conference with artsily sophomoric critics, a fracas at Elaine's), but the texture of Jill and Joe's prickly fondness against the vacant crassness of the film biz is a tragicomic triumph. Then, however, the narration is picked up by Owen Oarson, the new lover that Jill acquires on that N.Y. trip, a dumb cynic and renowned stud who's using Jill to further his own career as a producer. Maybe he also loves her, sort of, but the fight-and-make-up affair between faithful Jill and promiscuous Owen--most of the rest of the book--never quite clicks, not even when Jill herself becomes the narrator. Happily, the focus does finally return to Jill and Joe (who is a dying man after a stroke): they join a grossly raunchy pair of Texan screenwriters on a gloriously pathetic caper, stealing the soundtrack of Jill's unreleased new film (the powerful star is butcher-editing it) and careening around Texas. If, however, McMurtry can't quite illuminate Jill's romantic waywardness, he zeroes in acutely on each character's romance with the film industry: Jill's doomed passion for it, Joe's surly affection for it, Owen's rape of it and by it. On location in Rome, at Hollywood parties (Jill watches a Daimation eat a huge block of caviar), at business lunches--the details and dropped names ring true, the dialogue crackles, and the characters glow. And, perhaps most remarkably of all, McMurtry has adopted the relentless four-letter-worded vocabulary and groinal preoccupations of Hollywood without surrendering some intangible thread of clean-hearted decency--just one of the elusive charms that make this imperfect but lovable book the closest thing to the New Hollywood novel to come along so far.