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Back to Life in Texas

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, revived, for a time, the potential for storytelling of the sort Walter Benjamin favored.

McMurtry is not sure if such a thing really happens at the DQ. He thinks it may, and that’s why, he says, he’s there.

Benjamin, whose prescience in that essay in Illuminations may be fully appreciated only now (he anticipated both the information age and its challenge to the narrative imagination), distinguishes between the storyteller and the novelist—a distinction that seems to bear on McMurtry himself. Benjamin’s storyteller is essentially a historical figure. He practices his craft orally; it is social and deeply human. Typically he is a seaman or a craftsman, someone who has traveled and has tales to tell, or who has stayed close to home, listened well, and passes on what he’s heard. In either case he’s bound by “experience which is passed on from mouth to mouth.” The novelist, by contrast, begins and ends in solitude, and offers his work to readers one at a time. And so the novel is a more apt medium for a more atomized world, a world that Benjamin, now so quaintly, calls “modern.” It is Larry McMurtry’s world, and ours.

It was “living speech” of the local storyteller that McMurtry was listening for at the Archer County Dairy Queen when he set out to write his memoirs. Or so he says. In fact, over the course of Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, he reports nothing of what he hears there. (He seems to have saved it all for his novels.) Instead, he uses his time there as a spur to tell his own story. As for Walter Benjamin, he is only nominally at the Dairy Queen—he’s present enough, that is, to give McMurtry a way of writing a literary autobiography embedded in a consideration of the most basic element of literature, the story itself.

McMurtry’s own history is, in a sense, ahistorical. He was born in 1936 to a landscape that defined him as surely as it defined his parents and their parents, who first settled there.

My grandparents were—potent word—pioneers. They came to an unsettled place, a prairie emptiness, a place where no past was…. I spent every day of my young life with [my grandparents] and, consequently, am one of the few writers who can still claim to have had prolonged and intimate contact with first-generation American pioneers, men and women who came to a nearly absolute emptiness and began the filling of it themselves….

What this meant for McMurtry the writer was…everything. “The European writers,” he writes, “could no more escape culture than I could escape geography. To this day if I attempt a rural setting I invariably reproduce the contours of the hill where I first walked.” He spent his youth, much of it, on the back of a horse, ranching. He hated it. As he recalls,

When I attempt to think back to early childhood the scenes that spring to mind most vividly involve poultry, particularly one violent old tom turkey who would chase me whenever he saw me. I had no love for the pigs either, wallowing in their sea of mud by the barn, squealing, calculating, clearly malign. I was a young cowboy who hated his horse and feared almost every animal on the place.”

Still, there were the consolations of geography—the unending sky, the contour of the hills, and the sense of being, McMurtry writes, “securely placed.”

The flip side of this security, for McMurtry, was isolation. Bound to a specific spot on the map, he was cut off from everything else. He writes of standing on the porch of his house as a child and watching cars and trucks on their way to Mexico, a place he “had never heard of then.” And he tells of showing up at Rice University in Houston, ten or fifteen years later, where his mind was “as close to being a tabula rasa as could be imagined,” because he had read almost nothing except books he could find on the rack of the local drugstore. One of them, though, was a Mentor paperback called Highlights of Modern Literature, a collection of pieces from The New York Times Book Review edited by Francis Brown. “I had never heard of Fran-cis Brown, or The New York Times, either,” McMurtry writes, “but the paperback, which sold for thirty-five cents, had essays either by or on Auden, Orwell, Frost, Hemingway, Thomas Mann, Yeats, Faulkner, Gide, V.S. Pritchett, Joyce Cary, E.M. Forster, and Virginia Woolf.”

Had it not been for this book, McMurtry says, he’d never have heard of Pound or Eliot either, though he might have seen Hemingway’s portrait in Life. And it wasn’t just literature that escaped him. “My knowledge of modern history was limited to what I could pick up listening to the radio, but wasn’t much. I knew nothing of communism and was puzzled for years as to exactly why General MacArthur got fired.” When McMurtry got to Houston and entered the Rice library, he “felt a mingled sense of security and stimulation—a rightness of some sort. I felt that I had found my intellectual home and began to relax in ways that had not been possible on the ranch, even after I got old enough not to have to worry about the poultry.”

At Rice, McMurtry became an irrepressible reader and a book collector, taking the bus downtown to pick through the used book stores. He was an autodidact and a student both, out-reading most of his teachers. The cowboy ethic prevailed; he was relentless, filling the hole of what he didn’t know as if it were a well. It took a few years before he became a writer, too—he was a student of Wallace Stegner and Frank O’Connor at Stanford, and a classmate of Ken Kesey—and all three activities—reading, writing, and book collecting—have defined his life ever since. In Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen McMurtry writes as lovingly of reading and books as he writes ambivalently of ranching and cows. Yet one senses that if it had not been for the peculiar circumstances of his upbringing, his intellectual life would have taken a different turn altogether. It would have been less hungry, less thrilled by the glyphs of words upon the printed page, and less concerned with the cultural distance between America and Europe.

But all these things do excite McMurtry, perhaps because he grew up hanging on to the mane of a horse. He knows more than he thinks he knows, useful things, physical things, natural things, and while for him these things once suggested what he did not know in other realms—history, literature, philosophy, science—they grounded him, and gave him a real place from which to begin his intellectual wanderings. In this he is not so different from Benjamin’s prototypical storyteller. “An orientation toward practical interests is characteristic of many born storytellers,” Benjamin writes. In McMurtry’s case, it was not that he had any interest in raising livestock, but that he had acquired the practical knowledge of the cowboy, including an understanding of the cowboy’s aspirations and disappointments—knowledge that most others of his generation did not have, and no longer had access to, and that he, through his writing, has been passing along ever since.

My question to Walter Benjamin would be ‘what kind of stories arise in a place where nothing has ever happened except, of course, the vagaries and vicissitudes of life?”’ McMurtry writes, and plaintive as that query is, it is also dissembling. The vagaries and vicissitudes are the story; their drama is inherent. McMurtry mentions a neighbor woman who, all the time he was growing up, never uttered a word. The rumor was that she had been sold to a trapper as a young girl for a winter’s worth of skunk pelts. Readers of Lonesome Dove will recognize her—she’s the feral girl who tries to outsmart Blue Duck. What this suggests is that even silence, that nothingness, can have a story drawn from it. It also suggests that the “nothing” in “nothing ever happens” is a matter of interpretation.

One problem with using Benjamin’s definition of stories and their tellers is that it is less about narrative itself than it is about culture—about the social setting in which stories arise and are disseminated. The eclipse of a way of life—of artisans and guilds, of masters and apprentices—has not eliminated the narrative impulse or the attraction of stories, though it has made their telling a less social activity. Benjamin is commenting on the end of a historical moment, one that was defined in part by the activity of telling stories out loud in the presence of an intimate audience. Still, it is a difficult argument to sustain. Stories survive, even if a particular way of telling does not.

For as much time as he spent in the Dairy Queen in Texasville, for as much gossip as he heard and recounted there, Duane Moore, Larry McMurtry’s creation, is not a storyteller. This is not simply a matter of his natural reticence. A storyteller offers counsel, Benjamin says; a storyteller is imbued with wisdom. Both of these require more self-reflection than McMurtry, in the two novels leading to Duane’s Depressed, ever bestowed upon Duane.

In Duane’s Depressed, he changes that. It’s not that Duane suddenly, and uncharacteristically, becomes self-aware or emotionally intelligent. It’s that finally, as he enters his sixties, he knows that he is neither. This realization is the beginning of a consciousness that is irrevocable, and that displaces him. “Two years into his sixties,” the novel begins, “Duane Moore—a man who had driven pickups for as long as he had been licensed to drive—parked his pickup in his own carport one day and began to walk wherever he went.”

The walking is key—it’s a complete repudiation of his life and his ambitions, and those around him, his wife, Karla, especially, find it threatening. (It’s also a major topic of conversation at the Dairy Queen in Thalia, his home town.) Duane starts to walk everywhere, but always in the same direction. Away. He takes up residence in a small, unheated cabin he owns, six miles from his palatial home.

Getting away from it all was a motive [Karla] certainly understood—it was Duane’s decision to walk away from it all that threw the whole picture out of kilter and caused her to feel that she was dealing with a whole new phenomenon. Very few men of her acquaintance had ever walked six miles for any reason whatever, and very few would choose to sit by themselves in a bare little cabin…. This wasn’t a mood she was dealing with: this was something more fundamental.

Duane becomes an alien, both to friends and family, with whom he can no longer converse, and a stranger to himself. It’s as though his vocabulary has shrunk and become guttural, so everything he says is unintelligible yet open to interpretation. As McMurtry puts it:

He didn’t become a different man, but when he stepped out of his house he found himself in a different life. He hadn’t given any forethought to talking a walk, or to living a different life, either…. The change had just come, as naturally as a change in the weather—one day cloudy, one day fair…. His old skin, or his old self, no longer fit.

It’s at this point that McMurtry begins to do something extraordinary with Duane. He shows, word by word (or, more precisely in Duane’s case, step by step), a person fully becoming himself. It’s a masterful rendering—subtle, with great empathy and not a hint of sentimentality. Duane falls apart emotionally; the world is too much with him, and then it’s not there at all. He loses interest in his children, his wife, sex, possessions, work, friends. He gets fixated on trash along the highway, on having the right tools. McMurtry is able to convey what it is, nearer to life’s end than to its beginning, to lose one’s way, and then to have the courage to find it. It’s as if the subtitle of McMurtry’s memoir, Reflections at Sixty and Beyond, was the novel’s, too. Before Duane can get wisdom, though, he must first seek it. McMurtry seems to take Benjamin’s dictum—“…A man is receptive to counsel only to the extent that he allows his situation to speak”—literally. That is, Duane, despite himself, seeks out a psychiatrist.

Though it would be a stretch to locate in psychotherapy a modern platform for storytelling as Benjamin defines it, McMurtry suggests, as Benjamin does, that stories begin in memory and the articulation of experience. Psychotherapy plumbs memory; and then it helps to order experience into a personally coherent narrative—the true story of one’s life. If this is not wisdom itself, it is, at the very least, its antecedent. As if to affirm the connection between story and wisdom, the psychiatrist in the novel—a beautiful, cool lesbian with whom Duane falls hopelessly in love—prescribes Duane a peculiar medicine: to read Remembrance of Things Past, ten pages a day.

Throughout the winter, usually in the afternoon, when he was done with woodchopping and errands, Duane, each day, read his ten pages of Proust. Reading the ten pages became his balance to woodchopping. It was mental woodchopping, though he did not always feel that he was getting the wood cut, where the Proust books were concerned. Even after three and a half months, when he finished volume one, he still could not rid himself of the feeling that he was doing something inappropriate…. People would think he was trying to pretend to be smarter than he was.

It gets easier, but not by much. He finds passages, occasionally, that speak to him. He sticks with it; it takes a year. His wife dies in a car crash, his children’s lives get less messy, he gardens obsessively, and he reads. Duane thinks he has learned little from the Proust but, quietly, it changes his life: he becomes self-conscious, a reflective man. After a life of doing—of working, of having children, of mindlessly accumulating things—his interior landscape broadens, and with it comes a real desire to see the world. The book ends with him on a plane, flying off to see the pyramids, as open to the lessons of history as young Larry McMurtry was upon entering the stacks of the Rice library.

Duane’s story—after forty years and over a thousand pages—could not have been presaged, one suspects, by Larry McMurtry when he wrote The Last Picture Show more than three decades ago. He had not yet lived. The trilogy has the distinction of being written in “real time,” so that when Duane, in Texasville, was in his late forties, it was the early Eighties (the book was published in 1987), and now that he’s in his early sixties, in Duane’s Depressed, it’s the late Nineties. It’s the same with McMurtry; his chronology parallels Duane’s—they have entered their sixties together—and he knows things about Duane that he could not have known in 1966, and one of them has to do with the death of the self.

In December 1991, following a heart attack, he tells us in his memoir, McMurtry, like Duane, lost himself. He had bypass surgery, read Virginia Woolf’s diaries and Proust during his recovery, and then found he could no longer read for pleasure. The central part of his personality that made reading desirable was gone. “From being a living person with a distinct personality,” he writes, “I began to feel more or less like an outline of that person—and then that outline began to fade, erased by what had happened inside…. Fiction still came, but it came rapidly and impersonally; my pages were like faxes I received each day from my former self.” And while gradually, over many years, McMurtry regained the ability to read, he is still haunted by the loss: “I would hold a book in my hands but be unable to read it, as if, having lost sight of myself, literature too had become invisible, or at least distant and indistinct.” He longed for his old, and true, self to reappear, and eventually it did. Duane, by contrast, needs his old self to disappear, and his true self to assert itself, and eventually, with the help of his psychiatrist, and one of the great (aching, sexy) renderings of the transference relationship, it does. Authenticity, McMurtry suggests, is available to anyone able to “read” his own life, at any age.

In “The Storyteller,” Walter Benjamin suggests that a true storyteller is able to “reach back to a whole lifetime…. His gift is the ability to relate his life.” This, of course, is just one of Larry McMurtry’s manifold gifts, and it is everywhere in evidence in the Thalia trilogy—but not only there. Reading his memoir, one sees that the scope and originality of Lonesome Dove, for instance, the magnificent western that won a Pulitzer Prize, come directly from this kind of reaching back. McMurtry’s grandfather, the pioneer rancher, always wanted to have participated in a cattle drive, as did many of the cowboys with whom Larry McMurtry spent his youth. From memory and desire—not Larry McMurtry’s directly, but his through hearing—he was able to create a story as close to a genuine American epic as we have so far seen.

In Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, McMurtry is concerned with memory, collective and individual, but mostly his own. The book is ruminative and free-ranging, touching on such distinct topics as the decline of the family dinner, the suburbanization of the cowboy, the tug of books, the work of John Updike. Mainly, though, it is filled with local wisdom, acquired in Archer City, Texas, over the better part of seven decades. It is a narrative of ideas and recollections, whose coherence is enhanced by reading the novels. In it, McMurtry appears to accept the validity of Walter Benjamin’s distinction between the “living speech” of the storyteller and the more removed affect of the novelist. Why else go to the Dairy Queen looking for narrative when you own nearly a quarter of a million books? But again and again, in Lonesome Dove, in The Last Picture Show, in Duane’s Depressed, and in so much else of his fiction, Larry McMurtry proves that the distinction does not pertain. Think of it this way: Larry McMurtry went to the Dairy Queen to see if he could find Walter Benjamin’s storyteller. He didn’t, but we did.

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