ing together meditation and travelogue in his insightful new nonfiction book Paradise, Larry McMurtry captains the reader through two very different worlds his parents' long and rocky marriage and the remote Marquesas Islands of the South Pacific. Disparate though these worlds might seem to be, the author laces them together snugly with an all-encompassing vision. Like every other paradise, he observes, marriage is an ideal that reality inevitably sullies. At home in Texas or afloat on the Pacific, he is acutely aware of Eden's fragility. McMurtry begins this slim volume (160 pages) by describing his parents' provincial and often bleak existence in west Texas, contrasting it unsentimentally with his own wanderlust. His father is dead and his mother is near death as he sets out on the voyage that will provide him with the solitude to reflect on this aspect of his past. After a stop in Tahiti, McMurtry boards the freighter Aranui, which ferries supplies to the far-flung Marquesas. His companions on the ship are well-heeled Europeans on the lookout for ever more exotic locales. As they pursue the primitive, they bring with them a lust for shopping and a zeal for self-improvement. For the most part, McMurtry is gentle in his treatment of his fellow Eden-seekers. But he admits that there is something troubling about them. "What is off-putting, finally," he concludes, "is just the massed power of their money, the weight of which is so great that it produces a kind of indifference to the experience of those like the Marquesans who are radically different from themselves."As befits a man who has had many of his books made into movies (The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment), McMurtry depicts the islands through cinematically vivid long-shots and close-ups. From a distance, most of the islands look majestic and pristine. Closer in, the pores show cases of Coca-Cola stacked on the docks, kids listening to Sting in their Isuzu pickup trucks as they wait to perform native dances for the tourists. McMurtry doesn't play the amused sophisticate that S. J. Perelman did in his hilarious 1948 travelogue Westward Ha!, but he does have a sharp eye for the absurd.
Returning from his tour, McMurtry watches kids cuddle with their parents in the Los Angeles airport and muses: "Perhaps that is paradise: the fresh, unqualified love of children for their moms and dads a love before knowledge, which was the sort of love the God of Genesis intended for Adam and Eve." It is his paradise lost.
Edward Morris is a Nashville-based writer.