Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Coming of age

Larry McMurtry's The Desert Rose (1983) can be viewed as a coming-of-age story, never mind that the protagonist, a Vegas showgirl, is 39 years old. Some people just reach maturity later than others.

Harmony has been the most beautiful showgirl on the Strip since she was 17 years old. She has never been one to save money or to worry about the future. Everyone likes her not just because she is beautiful but also because she is always upbeat, always the one who lifts up others when they're down. Suddenly, however, things change. When she's in a bar with other showgirls, she realizes the men are looking not at her but at the younger women. She learns that Pepper, her lovely 16-year-old daughter, has been asked behind her back to become the lead dancer at the same casino where Harmony works. Further she hears, again not from Pepper, that her daughter has become engaged to a wealthy, middle-aged man.

The biggest blow of all comes when her boss tells her that her job will end on her 40th birthday. "Topless grandmothers just aren't what the public wants to see," he tells her.

Harmony knows little about anything other than being what she calls "a feathered beauty." If no other casino in Las Vegas wants to hire her, what can she do? To her credit, she rejects an offer to become a totally nude dancer, and she doesn't even consider asking her soon-to-be son-in-law for money. She finds answers not just by looking ahead, for the first time in her life, but also by looking back. She has a neglected husband in Reno whom she has not seen in years but whom, she learns, still loves her. Might there be a new life in a new town?

McMurtry has won much of his acclaim by writing about cowboys, most notably in Lonesome Dove. In a preface to my edition of The Desert Rose, he calls showgirls "the cowboys of Las Vegas." It might be interesting to approach this novel as a western featuring lonely showgirls rather than lonely cowboys. But I think I'll stick to seeing it as a coming-of-age story.

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