McMurtry's road trip begs to become a Hollywood film

December 05, 2004|By Christopher Corbett | Christopher Corbett,Special to the Sun

Loop Group,

by Larry McMurtry. Simon and Schuster. 242 pages. $25.

Not far into Larry McMurtry's latest novel, Loop Group, one of the characters observes that a trip planned across the American West from Hollywood to the Texas panhandle by two aging single women eager for some adventure sounds like Thelma and Louise II.

Leave aside for a moment that the reader may have already made this observation independently. The similarity to the film is both an asset and a liability to McMurtry's comic tale of aging, friendship, dysfunctional family life, being an older woman in America, Hollywood and the beginning of a new century. The story is wildly inventive, but the comparison with Thelma and Louise is, alas, inevitable, and not always for the best.

Loop Group is the story of Maggie Clary, now 59, and her lifelong friend, Connie, who have spent most of their lives working with modest success on the ragged fringe of the American film industry and living in Hollywood, the real Hollywood, a place that is both exciting and seedy.

They are a pair of saucy old gals who enjoy a stirrup cup, the magic cigarette and the company of men, many of whom are young enough to be their sons.

Unlike Thelma and Louise, Maggie and Connie are not so much running away from anything as experiencing some late mid-life crisis that has something to do with getting old, bad experiences with men, troubles with their respective families and work or lack of same. The story chiefly focuses on Maggie who has just had a hysterectomy, an experience that has unhinged her. She also suffers from three well intentioned but intrusive daughters. She has taken to living in a tent in her own backyard. The open road beckons.

Loop Group is a shaggy dog story, broadly comic and shoehorned with funny but often implausible scenarios. McMurtry's yarn wanders about rather a lot and comes complete with an enormous cast of fabulously eccentric characters for so brief a novel. The title comes from Maggie's shaggy dog of a business, Prime Loops, a scrub team of losers, drug addicts, small time criminals and drunks who dub sounds for films, mostly films of the B variety.

McMurtry, who is 68 this year, descends from genuine Texas cattlemen and is probably best known for writing the sweeping historical novel Lonesome Dove and its various descendants, most of which found their way -- with even greater success -- onto the screen. He may be as well known for the novels that would become such classic films as The Last Picture Show (a great paean to the dying small town American West), Terms of Endearment or Horseman, Pass By (which became the film Hud). His essays on the American West are gems.

With nearly 30 books behind him, mostly fiction, the Pulitzer Prize winner is free here to indulge in what is plainly an entertainment (soon-to-be-a-major motion picture?) -- a perfect vehicle for any number of older character actresses.

Make your own list (I like Helen Mirren). McMurtry is wonderfully inventive, trotting out an endless string of oddballs, including a lusty old Italian psychiatrist who manages to be Maggie's shrink and lover simultaneously and an all-purpose Hollywood Native American with the excellent name of Johnny Bobcat.

Much of the novel involves a wild drive across the American West from Hollywood to Electric City, Texas, to visit Maggie's madcap Aunt Cooney, a wealthy crank who owns millions of chickens. The road trip is an especially American yarn and McMurtry is perfect for such a jaunt, with dialogue that is lively, funny and plentiful. Maggie and Connie's drive to Electric City allows the novelist to trot out even more screwball characters.

What more is there to say about Loop Group? Except maybe: Soon to be a major motion picture.

Christopher Corbett, the author of Orphans Preferred: The Twisted Truth and Lasting Legend of the Pony Express, is at work on another nonfiction book about the 19th-century American West. He lives in Baltimore.

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