McMurtry's 'Paradise': distraction in Tahiti

May 27, 2001|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

"Paradise," by Larry McMurtry. Simon & Schuster. 159 pages. $24.

If ever an opening paragraph were guaranteed to snag readers prone to wanderlust, it would seem to be this one from Larry McMurtry:

"I am in Punaauia, Tahiti, in a thatched bungalow with a twenty-foot ceiling. My bungalow sits at the end of a clattery wooden walkway, built over Punaauia's perfect blue lagoon. The South Pacific, here in its gentlest mode, laps a few feet below my bed. In effect I sleep on the most soothing of water beds, one whose blue waters slap and sigh, untrapped."

It is an exotic and graceful beginning to what eventually broadens into a perceptive memoir of McMurtry's recent tour of the Marquesas, a remote archipelago of French Polynesia that has lured the likes of Gaugin, Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Unfortunately, a bothersome shark of sorts soon blocks our way, lurking in the waters of McMurtry's prose right there on the fourth page, when he tells us he is making this journey "in order to think and write about my parents, Hazel and Jeff McMurtry."

Jeff is deceased. Hazel is back home in Texas on her death bed. Both, it seems, seldom ventured beyond the dusty limits of Archer County. And while it is not unthinkable that a writer of McMurtry's considerable talent might mesh a meditation on their lives and a Pacific travelogue into a work of insight and beauty, that's not the case here.

Nor does he even persist in the attempt for long. After awkwardly darting back and forth between Texas and Tahiti for nearly 40 pages, never settling down long enough in either place to generate much closeness or warmth, McMurtry dramatically shifts course, as if he'd suddenly changed his mind.

From then on, with the exception of a few fleeting references, the book abandons Mom and Dad until journey's end, when McMurtry returns to his mother's bedside in the last paragraphs. It is just as well. There is a remote feel to his descriptions of his parents, suggesting that he is still too uncomfortable on the subject to move with much agility.

Thus freed, McMurtry moves deeper into the Pacific, where he hits his stride, boarding a freighter-cum-tour boat with a host of other travelers for a cruise to several of the archipelago's smaller islands.

Far more revealing than his portraits of his parents are his sketches of fellow passengers. He deftly describes the interplay between the French, the Germans, the Italians and the Americans on board. He also nails, as well as any travel writer to date, the dispiriting way most any Euro-American tour group inevitably begins gobbling up the meager remnants of indigenous cultures with snapshots and shopping sprees.

This portion of the book is so successful that the reader is left wondering why McMurtry even tried weaving his parents into the mix. Perhaps he felt a need for ballast - the additional literary weight of a son's musings, plus the more practical weight of a few dozen more pages to fatten the binding. Whatever the case, it is in the Pacific where his prose opens up and grows comfortable, lapping with its breezes and tides.

Dan Fesperman, a Sun reporter was born and raised in the South. He covered the war in Bosnia for The Sun from 1993 to 1996 while posted to the Berlin bureau. His first book, "Lie in the Dark," set in Sarajevo, was published by Soho Press.

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