Toward the end of Lonesome Dove, the aging Texas Ranger Augustus McCrae scouts ahead of his cattle herd with the stolid hand Pea Eye. At the Yellowstone River, Gus mystifies his companion by chasing after a herd of buffalo:
“Kill any?” Pea asked.
“No, I wasn’t hunting,” Augustus said.
“Did you just want to run ‘em off, or what?” Pea asked. As usual, Gus’s behavior was a complete puzzle.
“Pea, you ain’t got your grip on the point,” Augustus said. “I just wanted to chase a buffalo once more. I won’t have the chance much longer, and nobody else will either, because there won’t be no buffalo to chase. It’s a grand sport too.”
“Them bulls can hook you,” Pea Eye reminded him. “Remember old Barlow? A buffalo bull hooked his horse and the horse fell on Barlow and broke his hip.”
“Barlow was a slow thinker,” Augustus observed. “He just loped along and got hooked.”
“A slow walker, too, once his hip got broke,” Pea Eye said.
Lonesome Dove, like so much else of McMurtry’s work, is corrective. Yes, it tells us, the West was once a vast, unbroken, beautiful expanse, but it was also a brutal human affair in which rape, torture, murder, scalping, snakebite, lightning strike, and accidental death by random and startling means were commonplace.
Like many of his novels, McMurtry’s latest book, Paradise, is part of a series, following two recent nonfiction books, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen (1999) and Roads: Driving America’s Great Highways (2000). Ostensibly, it’s a travel narrative about a trip to Polynesia. But it, too, is corrective, gently but inexorably examining the paradisaical fantasies we cling to. Paradise may be about Polynesia, but it begins and ends where all of McMurtry does: in Texas.
Larry Jeff McMurtry was born during the Depression, on June 3, 1936, in Wichita Falls, Texas, a town about a hundred miles northwest of Fort Worth, some twenty miles south of the Red River, which forms part of the border between Texas and Oklahoma. His parents, Jeff and Hazel McMurtry, raised him in nearby Archer County, first in a house fifty yards from his pioneering paternal grandparents’ ranch house and eventually in the small town of Archer City. His father was a cattleman all his life, and young Larry was given his first pony at the age of three and taken on a cattle drive at four. The son, however, did not inherit the proclivities of the father:
Throughout my cowboy childhood the contrast between what I should have been afraid of—snakes, bulls, stampedes—and what I was actually afraid of—poultry and shrubbery—was ignominious. The most frightening factor in my early childhood, hands down, was poultry, with trees and shrubs a close second…. I was a young cowboy who hated his horse and feared almost every animal on the place.
He also remembers that “when I was three a great white snow owl flew out of [the] outhouse, right in my face, a thing so frightening that I have never fully recovered from the scare.” Despite those early, incongruous terrors, he was at home on the plains:
Early on I realized the force of the place and loved the skies. I wasn’t especially happy, being conscious too young of the gap between my abilities and what was expected of me, but I was securely placed. Here was the house, with its long porch on the east. There, a mile away, was Highway 281, a road that could take one north into the heart of the plains, or south to Mexico. I had never heard of Mexico then, but I could look across the mile of plain and see many cars and trucks, all going somewhere—places I too might someday go….
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.
When Larry was six, a cousin on his way to boot camp and World War II gave him his first books—a box of nineteen boy’s books of the time, such as Sergeant Silk, The Prairie Scout, and Poppy Ott and the Stuttering Parrot—and he discovered that he could read and that he liked it. A few years later—when the family moved into Archer City, “a move meant to spare me the rigors of an eighty-mile-a-day school bus ride”—the McMurtrys acquired a couple of encyclopedias and soon realized that their eldest son was “a reader, not a cowboy.”
Although he continued to work summers as a cowboy until the age of twenty-three, McMurtry spent a se-mester at Houston’s Rice University in 1954 and then earned a BA in English from North Texas State University in Denton. He went back to Rice in 1958, got married in 1959 (and had one child, a son, in 1962), finished a master’s degree, and in 1960 won a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in fiction to Stanford University, where he was taught by Frank O’Connor and Malcolm Cowley. His classmates included Ken Kesey and Robert Stone. McMurtry turns up in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test as a waystation for Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, in a scene that highlights his Texas manners:
Finally [the Pranksters] pull into Houston and head for Larry McMurtry’s house. They pull up to McMurtry’s house, in the suburbs, and the door of the house opens and out comes McMurtry, a slight, slightly wan, kindly-looking shy-looking guy, ambling out, with his little boy, his son, and Cassady opens the door of the bus so everybody can get off, and suddenly Stark Naked shrieks out: “Frankie! Frankie! Frankie! Frankie!”—this being the name of her own divorced-off little boy—and she whips off the blanket and leaps off the bus and out into the suburbs of Houston, Texas, stark naked, and rushes up to McMurtry’s little boy and scoops him up and presses him to her skin-ny breast, crying and shrieking, “Frankie! oh Frankie! my little Frankie! oh! oh! oh!”—while McMurtry doesn’t know what in the name of hell to do, reaching tentatively toward her stark-naked shoulder and saying, “Ma’am! Ma’am! Just a minute, ma’am!”
But in his novels, McMurtry scorned manners. In his oeuvre, there were to be many cows, but no sacred cows: he has one of his early characters declaring his birthplace, Wichita Falls, “the ugliest place on earth.” His first novel, Horseman, Pass By, was published in 1961 and became Hud, starring Paul Newman as the violent young cowboy who rapes his family’s cook. His second, Leaving Cheyenne, appeared two years later. The real watershed of his career, however, came with his third book, The Last Picture Show, published in 1966.
It may be difficult to recollect just how shocking a book The Last Picture Show was—at least in some parts of the world—when it was published thirty-five years ago, although it’s apparently not that difficult for the folks in Archer City. The book takes place in the thinly disguised town of Thalia, Texas (which appears in the two previous novels as well), exposing the town’s hypocrisy and repression by following the sexual education of several boys at the local high school. Its author dedicated it, “lovingly” and none too subtly, “to my home town.” Its graphic, wickedly funny descriptions of sexual fumbling, masturbation, and bestiality were meant to shock and did: the book was banned in Australia and excited attention in Hollywood.
What engraved the shock in local minds, of course, was the racy motion picture that a young Peter Bogdanovich and an even younger Cybill Shepherd (along with Jeff Bridges, Cloris Leachman, Randy Quaid, Timothy Bottoms, and Ben Johnson) filmed in Archer City. In 1992, the filmmaker George Hickenlooper released a short, fascinating documentary about the filming of The Last Picture Show and the dismal 1990 Bogdanovich sequel, Texasville (based on the McMurtry novel of the same name). The documentary, Picture This, uncovers old headlines—“Movie Riles Town It Depicts”—and allows the local wags to have their say about the whole salacious affair. A man in a rocking chair gleefully recalls: “It absolutely pissed the entire world off…. It did tell the truth about a bunch of the local people.” Another old party seems awed at the oil his former classmate had struck: “I read the book, and I said, Goddamn! Ol’ Larry just sat there and he just—while we was up there at noon hour and tellin’ all these stories about what we done—Ol’ Larry just wrote it all down and made a book out of it and got rich off it!”
To which McMurtry, in a voice-over, replies, laughing but indignant: “Horseshit. That’s local myth. I didn’t sit down and listen to the stories. I don’t think there was a kid in that town that told any stories…. They were off fucking or they were out throwing rocks at teachers’ cars or something like that. They weren’t sitting there telling wonderful stories that I could store up like a squirrel to use in my novels years later.” As McMurtry speaks, a still photograph of him appears, probably taken around the time that he wrote The Last Picture Show. He’s wearing a dark sweatshirt, and the front of it reads: Minor Regional Novelist.
McMurtry was bent on escaping that fate. His mother, Hazel McMurtry, recalls: “I believe The Last Picture Show was the third book, and I read a hundred pages and I hid it up in the closet and I called Larry that night and I said, ‘Larry, honey, is this what we’re sending you to Rice for?’ I said, ‘Those awful words! And those awful….’ He knew that we wouldn’t approve and wouldn’t like it, but he said, ‘I know ten authors that have written lots of books, and they’ve never sold a one.’ And he said, ‘I want my books to sell.’”
Sell they have. McMurtry would go on to write twenty more novels, including a series centered around contemporary Houston (Moving On, All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers, Terms of Endearment, The Evening Star); the Pulitzer Prize–winning Lonesome Dove (1985) and its sequels and prequels (Streets of Laredo, Dead Man’s Walk, Comanche Moon); as well as the sequels to The Last Picture Show (Texasville and Duane’s Depressed). Simultaneously, he carried on second and third careers as a screenwriter and as an antiquarian book dealer, moving to Washington, D.C., in 1969 and establishing (with partners) Booked Up, a bookstore in Georgetown.