June 15, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
We gave it a B+

Making it onto the best-seller lists is such a tough achievement that once writers hit it big in a certain genre, it’s rare that they ever try to cross over into another. (You won’t catch Tom Clancy penning a bodice ripper, or Danielle Steel lovingly describing military hardware.) The risk of alienating your core readership is high, but the results can be creatively and commercially rewarding, as John Grisham and Stephen King learned with their recent changes of pace, A Painted House and On Writing respectively. Now, three new books find Robert B. Parker, the late Louis L’Amour, and Larry McMurtry venturing into unfamiliar literary territory with varying degrees of success.

With Gunman’s Rhapsody, Parker moves a long way from Boston, the home turf of private detective Spenser, the protagonist of 28 of his novels. The setting is Tombstone, Ariz., in 1879, when Wyatt Earp rides into town. The famed gunslinger has left the bloody streets of Dodge City, Kan., looking for a little peace and quiet, but after he steals the local sheriff’s fiancee, showgirl Josie Marcus, the shooting starts up again.

Parker’s taciturn dialogue (”Next time I see you I’m going to kill you.” ”Maybe”) and no-nonsense descriptions (”his face was indoor pale”) easily make the trip West. In fact, Earp’s mature, passionate romance with Marcus may remind fans of Spenser’s longtime relationship with shrink Susan Silverman. Despite the occasional clunky phrase (”the bullets seem to surge from his deepest self”), the book rings true. ”That’s the dime novel guff,” Earp scoffs of his quick-draw reputation. ”Fast ain’t anywhere near as important as steady.” Gunman’s Rhapsody is both fast and steady.

Louis L’Amour was at home on the range — that’s why more than 260 million copies of his oaters are in print. Since his death in 1988, he’s become the Tupac Shakur of the Old West, as previously unpublished or uncollected works — most recently the short-story collection May There Be a Road — continue to emerge. Included are a pair of mini-horse operas, ”The Cactus Kid” and ”Red Butte Showdown” (they’re as colorful as their titles), but it turns out Westerns weren’t L’Amour’s sole love.

A onetime professional boxer, the author set some of his earliest efforts in the ring, and the three fight tales featured here drip with deliciously pulpy prose (”good heavyweights are scarcer than feather pillows in an Eskimo’s igloo”). The volume is bookended by cases from the files of L.A. PI Neil Shannon, and they’re intriguing enough to make you wish L’Amour had tried his hand at a full-length mystery. Most surprising, the well-traveled writer’s title story trades the West for the Far East. The romantic adventure concerns a Tibetan warrior’s fight to save his bride and his tribe from the encroaching Chinese Red Army. Submitted in 1960 to the Saturday Evening Post (which never ran it), the minor masterpiece was intended to awaken Americans to Tibet’s plight. L’Amour was hip to the cause long before Richard Gere, and Road may make you rethink the man’s square image.

Larry McMurtry, another writer best known for Westerns, journeys many thousands of miles for Paradise, as the Lonesome Dove author attempts to meld Tahitian travelogue and family memoir. He heads to the South Pacific ostensibly to reflect on the lives of his parents, denizens of Archer County, Tex., a place he admits ”no one would be likely to think…an earthly paradise.” But his cultural comparisons are forced at best. ”Rural life in west Texas was harsher than island life in the South Seas, but it was also more protective,” he observes. ”There were no French around to explode atomic weapons.”

McMurtry provides no insight into Tahiti’s residents, offering only condescending uncomplicated-native stereotypes: ”If there was a Prix de Freud for mental health, many Westerners would want to award it to the gracious, chatty, cafe-au-lait Tahitians.” By contrast, he diagnoses his folks as ”roughly as neurotic as Kafka, Rilke, and Proust put together.” Those are far from the only literary names he drops with a thud — Fitzgerald, Melville, Dreiser, Milton, and Yeats, among others, are also invoked. At times the book reads more like a bibliography than a biography. Mostly it reads like an excuse for a paid vacation.

”The problem with paradise is monotony,” McMurtry writes. That’s also the problem with Paradise. Sometimes, a bid to end the boredom of sticking to one genre merely creates another kind of boredom. Gunman’s Rhapsody: B+ May There Be a Road: B+ Paradise: D

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