Books: Reviewed in Brief

'When the Light Goes' by Larry McMurtry
This is the fourth novel McMurtry has written about Duane Moore. All right, “The Last Picture Show” wasn’t just about Duane, and “Texasville” was also an ensemble piece of sorts, but “Duane’s Depressed” and now “When the Light Fails” are all Duane all the time. This is partly because people in the story keep dying off. Duane’s wife, Karla, died in the previous book, and Ruth Popper drops dead early in this one. (McMurtry kills off characters more cold-bloodedly than any writer I know.) Given the title, I sat around waiting for Duane to die, too. But, while he does have a heart attack, he makes it to the end. Which could mean he’ll get another book. Or maybe not. I got the idea reading this one that McMurtry himself is finally getting a little bored with Duane, and he’s certainly giving the rest of us plenty of reason to feel that way, since Duane spends whole pages of this short (195 pages) novel doing absolutely nothing. On the other hand, this is still, however fitfully, one of the great portraits of a middle-class American man—and a likeable man at that—making his way through life. Sucker that I am, I’d read another one.

'Medicus' by Ruth Downie
It’s such a pleasure—because it’s such a rare experience—to come across a completely well done piece of commercial fiction. What a pro Ruth Downie is, and this is only her first book. I don’t know if she closely researched her story (set in Britain during the Roman occupation in the time of the emperor Trajan). I do know that everything about the story, its setting and its people seems compellingly real. Her protagonist, a Roman army doctor named Gaius Petreius Ruso, is likeable company. His adventures as an amateur sleuth, which begin when he autopsies a dead woman pulled from a nearby river, are drolly rendered. And his low-key romance—so low key that he’s the last to realize it is a romance—with a local woman who loathes her Roman overlords is both comic and touching at once. The highest praise I can offer this wonderfully entertaining portrait of the Roman Empire at its most far-flung is that I hope Downie is planning a series. Ruso is too good a character for just one book.

'Bible Road' by Sam Fentress
Here’s how good this book of photographs is: I have no idea if Sam Fentress is a Christian—of any stripe—or not. He might be a nonbeliever. He could be a holy roller. There is simply no way to tell from looking at his pictures. Which gives some inkling of how dispassionate they are. Whoever took these photographs of roadside testimony (JESUS SAVES and all the variations) did so with no ax to grind, no point of view to push. What the photographer does have is a keen set of eyes for the American landscape, both the part built by humans and the natural world with which the manmade part coexists so uneasily. And while there is no mockery here, there are plenty of occasions for a smile: Hail Marys in the form of Burma Shave signs, pictures of Jesus on spare-tire covers, scripture on truck mudflaps and the numerous signs blending religious exhortations and sales pitches for more earthly wares: JESUS SAID YE MUST BE BORN AGAIN JOHN 3-7 AREA SIZE RUG SALE 20% OFF. But long after you’ve stopped smiling, you’ll still be thinking about the zeal that pushed people to proclaim their faith on every conceivable surface available to them. And once you get over remarking on the subject matter, you’ll stop and notice just what a fine, understated photographer Fentress is.

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