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Saboteur in Texas

Sin Killer

by Larry McMurtry
Simon and Schuster, 300 pp., $ 25.00

1.

In his 1968 book of essays on Texas, In a Narrow Grave, Larry McMurtry wrote:

The Texas writer who really wants to get famous has only to work up his autobiography in such a way that it will (1) explain the assassination and (2) make it possible for President Johnson to be impeached. If he can do that, his name is made. The New York Review of Books will beat a path to his door, particularly if his door happens to be somewhere in Manhattan. Should his door be in Anarene, Texas, they will probably rely on the mails, but in any event he can put obscurity behind him. If he ever gets to New York he may even meet Susan Sontag.

Replace the words “the assassination” with “Enron,” and “Johnson” with “Bush,” and it becomes clear how little the Texas literary scene has changed. Yet the self-described “minor regional novelist” Larry McMurtry, whose work betrays no concern for presidential politics, has now published twenty-seven novels, three collections of essays, three memoirs, a biography, and more than thirty screenplays, all while working full-time as a bookseller. It is a display of energy worthy of his pioneer ancestors, and with this enormous output he has put obscurity behind him. He dominates the literature of his marginal place as completely as Faulkner dominates Mississippi.

By another measure—the fulfillment of the youthful dreams mockingly outlined above—McMurtry’s success has been just as dramatic. He appears regularly in these pages; and Susan Sontag has even put in an appearance in Archer City, Texas. Perhaps the most remarkable testament to his fame is that by returning there to found an enormous antiquarian bookstore, he has managed to turn Archer City, once a stranger to fashion, into a chic destination. His rising tide has lifted many local boats: to accommodate the overflow from the Spur Hotel, until recently open only three nights a week, the town added a second hotel, the Lonesome Dove Inn, where guests can unwind in the Last Picture Show Common Room or the Terms of Endearment Suite. Visitors come to Archer City in hopes of catching a glimpse of McMurtry: Thomas Swick devoted a chapter of his travel collection, A Way to See the World, to a trip to Archer City. It begins in disappointment: McMurtry has left for Los Angeles the morning of Swick’s arrival. The woman behind the counter at the general store tells him: “We get a lot of people from Texas. They come out on the weekends.” Swick takes in the sights:

I had never approached a Dairy Queen with reverence before, but this was the most glorified, most literarily significant Dairy Queen in the world. It was London’s Café Royal, Paris’s Closerie des Lilas, transported to Texas, with a table for one.1

Thus is Larry McMurtry, like Paul Bowles in Tangiers, or Goethe in Weimar, one of those rare writers who become tourist attractions in their own lifetimes. In this guise, and not as a writer, Larry McMurtry is an authentic part of the contemporary culture of Texas, a culture that has always had difficulty distinguishing kitsch from art.

My first encounter with him was as a figure in a landscape. In Houston, where I grew up, people took refuge from the petrochemical haze in the hills to the west of the city. My family’s country house was in Austin County, where I remember a friend of my mother’s propped up in a hammock, reading Lonesome Dove while sipping whisky and soda out of a red plastic cup. The title, rendered in a font best described as “saloon,” leered out from the cheap paperback cover, which also featured a tepee, a cowboy, and a herd of cattle. This tacky, overwrought western-ness complemented the rest of the ruburban scene—with the immense, unused barbecue pit; with the cows, almost certainly rented; with the ladies in denim shirts and silver wildflower jewelry up for a weekend of “antiquing.” McMurtry seemed to belong to all those people, trying idly to reconnect with a past they couldn’t quite recall and weren’t all that interested in anyway.

I instinctively rejected the book, and its author, as just another folksy fraud. In Texas, art was not made but bought, and as the bluebonnet paintings and Limited Edition Frederic Remington Bronzes piled up, it seemed increasingly unlikely that we would ever be able to analyze our real experience. What artists we had belonged somewhere else. Donald Judd could have gone back to SoHo, and Georgia O’Keeffe moved on to New Mexico, which, with its turquoise and sunsets, made more sense.

Our strengths were elsewhere. We had invented the silicone breast implant.

2.

For a place of its size and importance, Texas has a remarkably thin literary résumé. Yet it has never been virgin territory. Any writer who wished to deal with Texas seriously encountered a range of lively stereotypes. These were generated more by films (Giant, Written on the Wind) than by books, reaching a glorious apotheosis in the television series Dallas. These louche fictions encouraged Texans—churchgoing, conservative, unshakably conventional—to believe that they were, in fact, flamboyant playboy millionaires.

The Dallas mythology was so easy, so internationally credible, that it became inseparable from real experience. It offered urban Texans, who had never had one, a self-image, a standard to measure themselves against. The Ewing model was flattering—few people dislike being thought of as rich—and it had little competition. Our mythological figures—the cowboys, the oilmen, the Alamo heroes—were, in the urban context, unimaginably distant. But Texans, inhabiting what McMurtry has called a “context of no context,” were just as likely to accept one cheesy concept as another. Real estate fraud being the one great constant in Texas history, Texans had never much resisted false advertising. And visitors, eager to spot rich people or oil wells, arrived, found what they were looking for, and declared the investigation at an end: John Bainbridge’s The Super-Americans (1961) is one remarkable example of this distortion.

Eventually, of course, Texans became curious about our origins, only to find that what we had mistaken for history was really only marketing. Any flicker of authentic experience was immediately doused in a syrup of hyperbole and sentimentalism:

Mr. Rawlins looked at him as if he were a child. “No,” he said, “you can’t find act-ual relics no more. At least you can’t find enough of them, and what you do find’s sky high. Lot more profitable to make them. You know there’s six thousand antique stores in Texas alone, not to mention Arkansas and Louisiana? Where you gonna find that many kerosene lamps and wagon wheels?”

So wrote Larry McMurtry in Moving On (1970). As I learned when I shed my initial resistance and began reading him, McMurtry—himself a celebrated antiquarian—has devoted much of his life to clearing out the fake wagon wheels and kerosene lamps and tracing the real history of Texas. He has written about the countryside and the small towns, as well as the cities. His Houston series—Moving On, All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers (1972), Terms of Endearment (1975), and The Evening Star (1993)—was the first recognizable novelistic portrait of Houston.

Why such a portrait had not been created before, and why it has not really been attempted since, remains something of a mystery. When McMurtry started working, Houston, like other Texas cities, was an established and influential place, but it lacked even a rudimentary literature. Its idea of itself was derived entirely from advertising copy, which encouraged people to “think of Houston as a cluster of mud huts around the Shamrock Hotel, in the cellars of which people hide from the sticky climate, emerging at long intervals to scatter $1000 bills to the four winds.”2

McMurtry avoided the local tendency toward boosterism: and though living at the time outside the state, he displayed no sign of the equally unfortunate tendency of displaced Texans to vilify or caricature the place they came from. He did not shy away from typical Texas images—his books feature rodeo stars speeding through the desert in hearses; hicks firing away in honky-tonks; scheming, horny River Oaks widows—but he balanced them with moving and convincing portraits of more typical people: impoverished grad students, lovelorn bankers, nice girls in disappointing marriages.

His picture was convincing. He arrived in Houston in the same way millions of other rural people did: in search of broader horizons. In Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen (1999), he remembers that Houston, where he went for college, was “my first city, my Alexandria, my Paris, my Oxford.” For those determined to escape the loneliness and poverty of the countryside, Houston and Dallas and Austin and San Antonio meant possibility.

Yet the movement of those rural people did not create a literature, in part because their migration had no distinctive character, and the huge cities that resulted were scattered and piecemeal. It lacked excitement, as epic movements go: the Texas migrants were less oppressed than bored, and their story had none of the sentimental glamour of the shtetl Jews arriving in America, or the Southern blacks moving north. The story of these cities had gone unrecorded.

As some places were being born, others were dying. In The Last Picture Show (1966) and its sequels, set in the fictional town of Thalia, McMurtry showed the effect the new cities had on the places they drained. Early on,

I realized I was witnessing the dying of a way of life—the rural, pastoral way of life. In the Southwest the best energies were no longer to be found in the homeplace, or in the small towns…. The kids who stayed in the country tended to be dull, lazy, cautious, or all three.

McMurtry showed why the heartland, an abstraction most urbanites suspected to be the true repository of hominess and warmth, was rotten. Middle America, he suggested, was more about bestiality than needlepoint, and The Last Picture Show was scandalous when first published. Read today, the book is more depressing than titillating. Once even the pic-ture show closes down, an abandoned people find a last refuge in a joyless sexuality.

However pathetic their descendants’ fates, the founders of towns like Thalia were extraordinarily dynamic. Of his grandparents, McMurtry writes:

I spent every day of my young life with William Jefferson and Louisa Francis McMurtry 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.

The mythical West was palpable to him in a way that it can never be again: McMurtry’s uncle knew the last great Indian warlords, Geronimo and Quanah Parker; and McMurtry has said that his epic western Lonesome Dove was “about my grandfather’s time, and my uncles’, none of whom seemed like men of another time to me.”

  1. 1

    Lyons Press, 2003, pp. 169–172.

  2. 2

    George Fuermann, Houston: The Feast Years (Premier, 1962), p. 10.

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