Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections at Sixty and Beyond
by Larry McMurtry
Simon and Schuster, 204 pp., $21.00
by Larry McMurtry
Simon and Schuster, 431 pp., $26.00
Near the end of Texasville, the bridge novel in Larry McMurtry’s trilogy which begins with The Last Picture Show, the narrator happens to mention that the protagonist, Duane Moore, “rarely walked.” It’s a throwaway line that will only take on significance in Duane’s Depressed, the final novel in the trilogy, but it’s yet more evidence that Duane, who was first introduced to the reader as a high school football star twenty years before in The Last Picture Show, had grown up to be a man of means but little substance. He is a man so bored with his life that he entertains himself by sitting in a hot tub shooting holes through his dog’s luxe, two-story doghouse.
Duane is an oilman who has lived through the boom years to the other side, to a twelve-million-dollar debt that doesn’t seem to bother him any more than his wife’s profligate spending or his children’s messy lives. He’s a nice guy, easygoing, a floater—and he seems to bear little relation to that other Texan, the man who created him, whose industry and talent are legendary. McMurtry has written twenty-five books, the most recent of which, Duane’s Depressed and a memoir, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections at Sixty and Beyond, were published this year. He is also a professional book collector and bookseller. By his count his personal library has twenty thousand volumes, with an additional two hundred thousand massed in his bookstores in Archer City, where he was born. He is prolific and inveterate and the only thing he seems to share with Duane is a penchant for spending time at the Dairy Queen.
In their experience, at least, the Dairy Queen is less a fast food restaurant than a town commons. Duane goes there to hang out with his friends, to catch up on the gossip and to offer some himself. McMurtry’s interest is similar, yet in the memoir it is also more specific: he wants to listen to locals like Duane and his friends. Having read Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Storyteller” in Illuminations (while sitting in a Dairy Queen), he wants to find out if the regulars at the Archer City DQ are telling the kind of stories—full of local lore and practical knowledge—that Benjamin laments is becoming less and less possible to tell. As McMurtry explains it:
Dairy Queens, simple drive-up eateries, taverns without alcohol, began to appear in the arid little towns of west Texas about the same time (the late sixties) that Walter Benjamin’s work began to arrive in the English language…. What I remember clearly is that before the Dairy Queens appeared, people of the small towns had no place to meet and talk; and so they didn’t meet or talk, which meant that much local lore or incident remained private…. The Dairy Queens, by providing a comfortable setting that made possible hundreds of small, informal local forums …