I’m already on to my next series in my Larry McMurtry 2022 Re-reading Project, having finished the Duane Moore series last month. Now I’m onto the two Harmony and Pepper novels. “The Desert Rose” was apparently the third McMurtry novel I read, from the library (presumably Lewisham Library) in March 1998; bizarrely, I don’t have a record of having read this copy, bought in January 2004, from Borders (presumably in London), I imagine with a birthday book token.

Larry McMurtry – “The Desert Rose”

(25 January 2004)

“That’s the nice thing about Las Vegas, though,” Harmony said. “I was never talented like you are, I was just pretty. Nobody would have known what to do with me anywhere else, but here I got to be a feathered beauty.” (p. 250)

It’s not clear why McMurtry has found himself writing a preface to this book only a year after its publication, but he talks about that process and then reveals that he wrote this novel in three weeks, while in the middle of writing “Lonesome Dove”! He was making glacial progress with the massive novel and was asked to write a treatment for a film about Las Vegas showgirls, which turned into this novel. But they’re not as disparate as you might think:

I have always been attracted to dying crafts – cowboying is one such. It became clear that the showgirls were the cowboys of Las Vegas; there were fewer and fewer jobs and they faced bleak futures, some with grace, and some without it. (p. 7)

Unlike my reservations about the Duane series, this novel is very firmly centred on the female experience, with care and respect and an understanding of the issues women face in relationships and the workplace. Much like in his other novel, none of the men in the book are much to write home about; even Harmony’s best friend and most stalwart support, Gary, is often snippy and critical, if good at making an apology.

Harmony works as a showgirl, standing on a disc and being lowered from the ceiling at one of the big Las Vegas shows. She’s done it thousands upon thousands of times; she’s no singer or dancer, so her job is to look beautiful and give of that beauty to the people in the audience, many of whom have carefully saved to get their week of glamour in Vegas. But she’s a dying breed: she’s coming up to 39 and is no longer the most beautiful woman in Vegas, doing photo opps with celebrities; her daughter Pepper, who is 17, is hot in pursuit, and she can dance.

Pepper is a bit of a one. Unlike the glacial Jacy from Thalia, she is off around, sleeping with boys and taking risks. Is she horrible to Harmony because she’s jealous, because she’s a teenager or because she’s just horrible? It’s hard to tell, though different people have different theories. On a weird assignation with her dopey boyfriend to have photos taken by some older guy, she finds a different way to live, expansive and expensive, high-end but muted, and forms a friendship with Mel (who I used to think was a lovely character but is actually quite creepy; also I am now older than him, which feels a bit weird).

So Harmony sits in her yard, feeding her peacocks and crying, but it’s not all misery. Completing the cast are the aforementioned Gary, dresser to the show, a gay man with a depressive side but very supportive; Jessie, the other showgirl-on-a-disc, lurching from crisis to crisis with her miniature poodle the most important man in her life; and Myrtle, who lives in the other half of Harmony and Pepper’s duplex and keeps goats (all the animals get through OK though one peacock is lost before the novel starts), a rackety older woman with a taste for yard sales and vodka who is also a repository of secrets. Pepper’s dad Ross is out of the picture, seemingly offering no escape from their precarious life and the poverty that comes knocking constantly, with failing cars, exploitative boyfriends and cancelled Visa cards.

When Harmony’s job is threatened while Pepper is offered marriage and a fancy job, will everything fall apart? This bittersweet, lovely novel, full of sunsets across the desert and the distant view of the Strip, offers a form of hope, though another precarious one. I loved it as much as I remember loving it before.

Are you doing the project with me? Are you planning to read this one?