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 …