McMurtry was born in 1936, in Wichita Falls, Texas, and raised at a cattle ranch 18 miles from Archer City. There was no electricity or plumbing, and 18 miles was then and remains a long trip by horse. Entertainment consisted of long nights on the porch with his grandfather, who spun yarns about his days as a West Texas pioneer. McMurtry later recalled these nights as his baptism in “aural culture.”
And there was land. Lots of it. On the Great Plains, land is not something that can be manipulated or conquered, but a character unto itself. Here is McMurtry, who said that “geography is destiny,” describing the scene in his 1999 book Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen:
It was a modest world, nothing one could compare to the great ranches of the Panhandle, the Trans-Pecos, or south Texas, but it was so sharply and simply defined that it has, ever after, drawn a kind of border about my imagination, geographywise. I see that hill, those few buildings, that spring, the highway to the east, trees to the south, the limitless plain to the north, whenever I sit down to describe a place. I move from the hill to whatever place I’m then describing, whether it’s south Texas, or Las Vegas, but I always leave from that hill, the hill of youth.
It’s impossible to tell McMurtry’s story better than he did himself in his memoir trilogy: Books (2008), Literary Life (2009), and Hollywood (2011). After learning of his death, I reread Books and Literary Life, and his other great work of nonfiction, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen.
Orhan Pamuk has claimed that it was growing up in the shadow of his father’s collection of 1,500 books that made him a writer. How then, I wonder, might he explain McMurtry, who grew up in a house with zero? His parents weren’t readers; his first books were delivered by a cousin on his way to World War II.
Though it was clear in his early life that cowboying wasn’t a likely occupation (a lack of skill and changes in the trade told equally against him), writing had not yet appeared on the horizon. Like many aimless countrymen then and now, he assumed that, after college, he’d return to the hills of his childhood, “peasantlike.” Somewhere, a love of books blossomed, and so too did an easy proficiency with the pen. After a brief interlude at North Texas State and Rice Institute (now University), he was given a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford on the strength of his two unpublished manuscripts. They didn’t stay that way for long: Horseman, Pass By was released in 1961, Leaving Cheyenne two years later. Both, along with The Last Picture Show (1966), were quickly scooped up by Hollywood and filmed.
McMurtry later joked that his success seemed predicated on his ability to produce novels that resonated well with Hollywood. It’s truer to say that his characters were fully formed enough that reading about them was as immersive as watching a movie. Little adaptation was necessary — the books came largely screen-ready, although much of the subtlety of print was smoothed out when translated to celluloid. Take Horseman, Pass By, which was filmed as Hud (1963), named for the villainous side character who insults, rapes, and schemes his way through the fringes of the book. In the film version, Hud is if not the hero, then certainly the main draw, his vile antics softened enough for him to ride the antihero amorality of the time (the fact that he was played by Paul Newman likely had something to do with his appeal).
I felt most keenly those earliest writings, the Thalia trilogy (what McMurtry himself called his Exodus cycle, for the exodus from rural life they portrayed), then the Houston series, inaugurated by Moving On (1970) and All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers (1972). The town of Thalia, Texas, could have been any provincial backwater in any North American state or province. It certainly mirrored my own experience, and his Great Plains felt like my Great Plains. Seeing words like baling wire, posthole diggers, stretchers, and thresher used without clarification, I felt like I had stumbled upon a secret text, one only country folk could decipher. Likewise reading about his “sky longing,” when he found himself off the plains in the closed-off, forested, or crowded areas of the world.
Most people only vaguely familiar with his work would be shocked to learn that McMurtry, as he once said, “didn’t love cowboys and didn’t want to wax poetical about them.” He regularly begged off requests to introduce books of Western paraphernalia and cowboy photography, preferring to write about books that interested him: works on travel in Central Asia, for example, such as the Skyhorse edition of George Kennan’s Tent Life in Siberia (1870). His personal library contained a vast section on women’s travel literature.
His reputation as a Texan who wrote about Texas soon garnered him a reputation as a minor regional writer, a tag he adopted with a certain delight. But, as he wrote, “Minor writers provide the stitchery of literature.” “Besides,” he added, “major writers often find themselves writing minor books. Major writers aren’t major all the time, and minor writers occasionally write better than they normally do, sometimes producing a major book.”
If McMurtry had one inarguably major book, it was Lonesome Dove (1985), for which he won a Pulitzer. McMurtry was in Uvalde, Texas, giving a college lecture, when he learned that he’d won. Reporters descended on the town for interviews, but by then the marquee of his hotel, which had previously read “Welcome to Larry McMurtry, Author of Terms of Endearment,” had been changed to “Catfish Special, $3.99.” Such is life.
Writing books was one part of McMurtry’s life; buying them was another. His shop Booked Up is now an institution in Archer City. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, McMurtry was nothing short of a book-buying maniac, scooping up the stock of bookstores both national and international (he was in Switzerland when his business partner mentioned the dwindling stock in their DC bookshop; he bought the contents of a local library and sent it stateside posthaste). By that time, he said, “writing was my vocation, but I had written a lot, and it was no longer exactly a passion.” In a 1976 issue of The New Yorker, McMurtry’s friend and fellow bibliomaniac Calvin Trillin wrote of McMurtry’s obsession that “[h]e compares book scouting to cowboying, acknowledging in the process that he was a fairly miserable cowboy.” He went on:
His father, McMurtry says, could spot a cow he wanted and return the next day to cut it out of a herd of two thousand; to Larry, all cows look alike. Not books. Larry knows which shade of blue on a copy of Native Son indicates a first printing and which one doesn’t; he knows the precise value of poetry books by Robert Lowell that Robert Lowell may now have forgotten writing.
McMurtry did his time for the establishment, succeeding Susan Sontag as president of the PEN American Center in 1989, the first non–New Yorker in the post since the 1920s. The position was an ill-fitting one, taken so that he could spend more time in New York. But leading a group he’d never felt a part of — the “tribe of New York writers,” whose queen, he said, was Sontag (who eventually became an unlikely friend) — was something that couldn’t last, and he left after two years.
In 1991, he drove headlong into a Holstein cow outside of Archer City. The resulting heart attack led to quadruple bypass surgery that nearly did him in, then a slump of depression and uninspired writing. His next act came about through Diana Ossana, his amitié amoureuse, with whom he penned a couple of novels and screenplays, including Brokeback Mountain (2005), an adaptation of an Annie Proulx story that won the pair an Oscar.
McMurtry was a Hollywood forerunner to other seminal Western writers, like Thomas McGuane and Jim Harrison — yahoos who wrote with both hands: novels and nonfiction on one side and, quite profitably, screenplays on the other. McGuane and Harrison were imports into sky country (both being Michigan bush boys), and their work often focused on characters either entering or returning to it, as was their experience. McMurtry was a local brand, not just from a different day, as he once noted, but from a different era. He felt the connection between himself and his pioneering grandparents keenly, and he made it his life’s work to follow the direct line from their arrival in empty West Texas straight through to the suburban cowboys of his fiction. “Exodus,” he once wrote, “makes a great theme.” It was certainly his theme. So too were dying crafts and vanishing breeds: cattle drives, cowboying, the secondhand book trade, even the vaunting of big bosoms (the well-endowed showgirl Harmony, in his 1983 novel The Desert Rose, finds herself edged out of the business by a growing taste for small breasts).
The windmill to his Quixote was myth. He knew myths, and understood them, but he did not serve them, as so many Western pulpsters are wont to do (the pulpsters, in turn, are desperate to be taken for realists). He painted perhaps the most unromantic picture of the West, and therefore the most realistic: his heroes didn’t ride off into the sunset, they fell off their porches, killed themselves, or slid into gangrenous death. Despite this impulse to demystify, Lonesome Dove proved to be something like a rock in the shoe (or, perhaps a gold nugget) in that, rather than dispelling the Western mythos, it seemed to add to it. “What I learned from writing [Lonesome Dove],” he wrote in Literary Life, “was that myth is tenacious. Any attempt to deromanticize the cowboy will only boomerang and end up striking whatever it attempts to debunk.”
He was an unwavering realist. Karma rarely caught his characters because it rarely catches anyone in real life. If his characters did happen to get caught, it wasn’t due to karma but simple comeuppance. Karma belongs to the realm of fantasy. To be sure, there was weirdness — a lot of it — but never fantasy. Sex-starved boys might screw a heifer, as they do in The Last Picture Show, or a lonely man might mount an exhaust pipe, as in All My Friends…, but that’s just bizarre and sick enough to be true. So too might a dusty cattle hand, after a long day of tagging, castrating, and deworming steer, saunter into a bar and order a cosmopolitan. These are the small details that enrich stories, that wrangle them off the page and into the open pastures of truth.
In Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, McMurtry considers the eponymous theorist’s idea that storytelling is a vanishing art, a practice made obsolete by vast changes on a global scale. The McMurtry canon is proof of the reverse — that good stories resonate like a plucked strand of barbed wire. To be sure, it was a cattleman’s sense of work he expressed when he said that
[s]itting with the immortals does not make one an immortal, but the knowledge that they’re around you on their shelves does contribute something to one’s sense of what one ought to try for. An attitude of respect for all the sheer work that’s been done since scribes first began to scratch on clay tablets is a good thing to cultivate.
His last novel was, appropriately, 2014’s The Last Kind Word Saloon. Kind words were McMurtry’s legacy, they were his truth. Then there was passing — the ending of one life and the beginning of another. He carried many characters through to the end — Duane Moore, Emma Horton, Danny Deck, Augustus and Woodrow. Rural to urban, hand to machine, birth to death. “As for literary opinion,” he said, “I am much more willing to accept the judgment of time than I am the judgment of any literati. Time will sort us out, determine who was really good from who was mediocre.”
There is a kind of recognition kinsmen are only able to make in a time of parting. And so, it ends as it began, with words from Yeats:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!
J. R. Patterson was born, and for many years worked, on a cattle and grain farm in Manitoba, Canada. A list of his travel writing, essays, and fiction, which have appeared in a variety of international publications, can be found at www.jrpatterson.ca.