Texas’ foremost novelist is in high gear. Last year alone saw the publication of Roads, his quirky, appreciative tour of the interstates; Boone’s Lick, a Western novel; and Still Wild, an anthology of short stories about the American West by leading authors. This year he’s off to another hot start with Paradise, a book that combines two of his recent interests, family memoir and travel. For the first time in his career, the setting is exotic—Tahiti and the lesser-known Marquesas Islands—and his mode of travel is a freighter, which gives him plenty of time to meditate on the things that matter most: life, death, and art.Though the narrative takes place mainly on board the ship and on short excursions to the obscure islands of the South Pacific, McMurtry’s home country is never far from his consciousness. The personal and affecting back story is the imminent death of his mother, who occupies her own unreachable space in a nursing home in Wichita Falls.

McMurtry divulges a few family secrets about his parents that will provide future biographers a good starting point should they want to psychoanalyze him. But he also devotes plenty of astute attention to his fellow passengers, several of whom are quite likable as individuals but who, en masse, represent capitalism at its worst in their wholesale egotism as they descend on the islanders, looking for artifacts and photo ops. His chief muse on this journey is Gauguin, the artist who best understood the melancholy of perfect tropical places and the sadness lying just beneath the surface of all that female beauty.

Paradise is a gem of a travel narrative: spare in form, rich in detail, and philosophically profound. by Don Graham