Saboteur in Texas

Sin Killer

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

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.

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 …

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