I’m a HUGE Larry McMurtry fan. I have been for most of my life. His early "contemporary" novels (LAST PICTURE SHOW, MOVING ON, ALL MY FRIENDS ARE GOING TO BE STRANGERS, TERMS OF ENDEARMENT etc.) and his classic westerns (LONESOME DOVE, STREETS OF LAREDO) are fantastic. He also wrote the screenplay for the terrific miniseries version of Frederick Manfred’s western RIDERS OF JUDGEMENT last season for TNT.
McMurtry has a natural, amiable writing style that is as comforting, and difficult to leave, as a warm bed. I was sad when MOVIN’ ON and LONESOME DOVE, books that clock in around 600 pages, had to end (I’ve re-read LONESOME DOVE twice). All his characters, even the ugliest, meanest ones, have a natural sense of humor. But that doesn’t mean he’s soft… his novels are full of physical and emotional violence, cruelty and death…but with equal measures of humanity and hope. I love the guy and I drop everything to read his books the moment they come out.
That said, his "contemporary" novels over the last ten years or so have been increasingly disappointing and repetitive, while his westerns continue to soar. His four BERRYBENDER westerns, the last of which came out a few months ago, were a pure joy…more comedic and sillier than his other work, but surprisingly violent as well.
His non-westerns lately (DUANE’S DEPRESSED, THE LATE CHILD, EVENING STAR, etc.) have all seemed to focus on depressed, dreary, aimless characters trying to jar themselves out of a deep funk… usually by abandoning their loved ones, behaving irrationally and self-destructively, and taking some kind of road trip. His latest book, LOOP GROUP, is yet another take on the same theme and his weakest book in decades.
For the first time, his characters feel like caricatures of previous characters in his earlier, better novels… and his writing has lost it’s snap. His prose is sloppy and unfocused, littered with cliches as well as cliche images (haven’t we seen the reference to `Japanese tourists running around with their cameras, taking pictures of everything’ enough now?). He also appears to make many factual errors. For example, he talks about people driving east on Cahuenga in LA, and couple of haracters walking into a California Wal-Mart, buying a gun, and walking out with it, and a box of shells the same day (Isn’t there a waiting period?)
But I doubt the factual bumps and cliches would have bothered me so much if the characters, the plot, and the writing were up to McMurtry’s usual level of excellence. THE LOOP GROUP is a McMurtry book even devoted McMurtry fans should skip.
(The last time I felt this disappointed by a favorite author was a year or two back when John Irving came out with THE FOURTH HAND, an uninspired novel that read as if it had been dashed off half-heartedly using reheated Irving leftovers from other, better books).