Wichita Falls lies in north central Texas, with the Oklahoma line just a few miles to the north and the Texas Panhandle sticking up just a few more miles to the west. It is not now and never was one of the scenic beauty spots of North America. Under the heading of “What To See,” the AAA Tour Book lists nothing whatever. More sedate books of reference speak unenthusiastically of Wichita Falls as the center of an agricultural district, the home of Sheppard Air Force Base, and as surrounded by oil and gas fields. Set in a vast expanse of level plateau country, Wichita Falls lies on the Wichita River, indeed, but the “Falls” are hypothetical. Something must have been there when the town was named and a set of artificial falls are being built now—but for most of the town’s history, there weren’t any that you could notice.
Heading west from Wichita Falls on Route 287, one reaches after some sixty miles Vernon; and then, cutting a little southwest, another twenty miles brings one to the hamlet of Thalia. There one is in the heart of Larry McMurtry country. Larry McMurtry is the author of twelve novels, published over the last twenty years, two of which have been made into successful movies (The Last Picture Show and Terms of Endearment), and another of which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. McMurtry was born and to some extent bred in Wichita Falls. As a “serious” novelist he hasn’t received much consideration, probably because his western settings have led eastern critics to confuse him with writers of cowboy melodramas. He can do cowboy melodrama, and do it very well, but even as he does it, there are overtones and nuances of feeling that transcend the formulas. Comparison with classic American writers is probably premature (if one ventured on such comparisons, they might be with Bret Harte, not Mark Twain; Sherwood Anderson, not William Faulkner; Frank Norris, not Stephen Crane), but it is safe to say that Wichita Falls has produced an artist. An account of one early and two late novels can give some impression of the shape and quality of his career. Though one of these books is panoramic in its scope and historical in period, the other two are firmly set in Thalia, Texas, which is not just a backdrop but a powerful presence.
Whatever it may be in real life, Thalia in McMurtry’s fiction is one of the most dreary, ugly, depressing small towns imaginable. Set in a flat, semi-arid plain, it is swept when the wind blows with storms of gritty sand and thickets of tumbleweed. The town has minimal commercial life, most of it moribund, practically no opportunities for amusement, zero culture. People in Thalia do not read books under any circumstances; the only music they listen to is Willie Nelson; they take no interest in politics above the local level, watch TV torpidly, and drink as much as they can afford to. Conversations when they occur are apt to be blunt, sarcastic, and brief; the prevailing mood of the town is sullen. For brief periods, some Thalians may be very rich and spend their money, out of boredom, on things they don’t really want or need; but there’s really no elite group to show off before. The lively social event is the high school football season; but the activities of the town are largely channeled into fornication. It is continuous, barely concealed, and cuts across all boundaries; it takes place day and night (once notably at the town’s only traffic light where the two main streets cross). In this respect, and this alone, Thalia is a lively town.
The Last Picture Show is an early (1966) novel about Thalia; it introduces us to Duane Moore and Sonny Crawford, two boys in their last year at Thalia High School. Both are curiously detached from their families; they live in a boarding house and support themselves doing a variety of handyman and roughneck jobs. Both are avid in their pursuit of sexual initiation. Jacy Farrow is the sex queen of the high school, and reserved for Duane the football captain; but she is an elusive prey, and though both boys successively attain her—sort of—it can’t be said that either really enjoys her. Nor indeed does she enjoy them, or anybody else; the various grandes affaires end invariably in fiasco or ludicrous comedy. Meanwhile the book’s background is enlivened with many more bizarre couplings. Sonny in particular bounces around like a sexual billiard ball, from dull Charlene to Ruth Popper, wife of the football coach, to Jacy herself to Jacy’s mother—who, having prevented the consummation of his marriage to her daughter, calmly takes the young groom off to spend the wedding night with her.
Around the margins of the Duane and Sonny stories a good deal of yokel sex-play goes on—callow experimentation and barnyard buggery, plus a trip by Duane and Sonny to a Mexican whorehouse. None of these episodes bestows anything in the way of enlightenment or pleasure on the participants; indeed, the book’s happenings, especially when they are deliberately intended, have very few consequences of any sort. On the other hand, when Duane and Sonny (despite their long friendship) get into a barroom scuffle over Jacy, things turn unexpectedly ugly. Though the fight is perfunctory, one of Sonny’s eyes is so badly damaged that he loses the sight of it. An obvious irony is that the girl over whom they are fighting cares for neither of them, and probably at the moment for nobody except herself.
Sonny’s affair with Ruth Popper, who is at least twenty years older, is the most carefully developed and movingly described element of the book.
“I see you feel you’ve missed a chance,” Ruth said, when they were at the door. She looked at him frankly. “You see, I’m very confused, even if I look like I’m not. That’s why you must go. I’ve got on a great many brakes right now—what I was thinking about a while ago is nothing I’ve ever done except with Herman, and for a long time I haven’t even believed a man could want me that way. I don’t know if I believe it now, even though I see you do. But then I think it isn’t really me you want, it’s only that…sex. Not that there’s anything wrong with you wanting that, it’s perfectly natural….” She was talking faster and faster, but suddenly she stopped.
“You must really think I’m crazy,” she said. “I am crazy I guess.”
“Why’s that?” Sonny asked.
“What?” Ruth said, caught by surprise.
“I mean why do you feel crazy? I guess I shouldn’t be askin’.”
“Of course you should,” she said. “I was just surprised you had the nerve. The reason I’m so crazy is because nobody cares anything about me. I don’t guess there’s anybody I care much about, either. It’s my own fault, though—I haven’t had the guts to try and do anything about it….”
She shut the screen door and they stood for a moment looking through the screen at one another.
Ruth, though atrociously misused by her loathsome husband and then almost as cruelly by her callow lover, shows signs of being a survivor; but Sonny has been overwhelmed in his manhood. He will never, it seems, be anything but the whimpering, shamed puppy that he is at the end. Sonny isn’t in any way a sensitive soul crushed under the iron wheels of life; there aren’t more than two sensitive souls in Thalia. It’s the dumb innocence of the young people in their thoughtless cruelty, as in their blind despair, that gives the book its very moving balance. The boys don’t know they’re pathetic, but older people achingly do—Genevieve, night waitress at the local café, and Sam, who runs the pool hall; they realize the only thing to be in Thalia is young and foolish, and they realize the hopeless fragility of that temporary condition. The book touches the throbbing nerve of American loneliness; it is relatively gentle with its people, but hard as nails about their desolate condition.
Lonesome Dove is a bigger and very different novel. It is set sometime in the undefined past, between 1869, when the first cattle drive from Texas to Montana was made, and a decade later, when Custer’s Last Stand (1876) was a much-talked-about event. Once again the balance of the novel is between toughness and tenderness, and once again the central figures are a pair of cooperating and contrasting males. Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call are retired Texas Rangers who run a rather dubious cattle-and-horse ranch, the Hat Creek outfit, at Lonesome Dove, not far from the Rio Grande. The mythology of the Texas Rangers (who from the days of the Republic had been the principal and in many districts the only agents of law in Texas) is extensive and romantic. They are said to have been omnicompetent and invincible, Supermen before their time. Tales are told of a single Ranger being dispatched to capture a raiding party of two hundred Mexican soldiers, and of similar heroic deeds involving desperadoes, Comanche war parties, and assorted hard cases of the ragtag frontier.
McCrae and Call have given up “rangering,” as they call it, and now are business partners, breaking and making the law as they see fit along a frontier where there is properly no law at all. Sometimes they raid Mexican ranches across the border, sometimes they are raided. As the novel opens, the business run by these two soldiers of fortune does not seem much better than hit-or-miss. They have very few hands, most of their stock is running loose on the open range, and since it is very poor range, the commercial side of their enterprise hardly seems likely to prosper. As for Lonesome Dove itself, it seems to be little more than a saloon/whorehouse surrounded by a few houses and perhaps a general store: not being described, they have to be imagined. But the grubbiness of the hot, sandy, savage environment is thoroughly rendered. The sandy land is crawling with red-legged centipedes, a couple of bites from which can lead to an amputation; food consists mainly of beans laced with chopped rattlesnake and goat fried in a substance like tar; and when someone has a chunk bitten out of him by a vicious horse, the treatment is axle grease and turpentine.
McMurtry clearly relishes these details. In the opening scene Augustus McCrae is sitting on his porch, sipping whiskey from a jug, and watching with mild interest as two blue pigs try to devour a single rattlesnake, starting from opposite ends. There are other scenes to turn the stomach, and a steady undercurrent of macho (or is it sadistic?) violence that sometimes seems excessive. For example, when Woodrow Call finds one of his men being assaulted in Ogallala, Nebraska, by a nasty, domineering soldier, it is natural for him to come to the rescue, natural for him to knock down the aggressor, even to kick out a handful of his teeth; but when he drags the prostrate victim to a nearby blacksmith shop and beats his head against the anvil till he has to be dragged away by a horse and lariat, a reader may feel it’s been a bit much. Again, on a visit to Fort Worth, Augustus McCrae is offended by an uppity young barkeeper; so he smashes the man’s face on the bar, breaking his nose, and then puts an end to the contretemps by knocking him cold with the butt of his revolver. They are tough hombres, these Texas Rangers, but not invariably sympathique.
It’s a desperate situation in which Call and McCrae engage themselves; they are to drive a thousand head of cattle, more or less—most of them rustled from Mexican ranchers across the border—north over some two thousand miles of open plains, never far from hostile Indian tribes and gangs of frontier outlaws, to the unclaimed range lands of Montana. They have some assurance that good grass and plentiful water will be waiting for them there; on the other hand, they will have to build shelter for themselves and their stock before winter sets in. Call and McCrae know next to nothing about Montana, and haven’t given so much as a thought to where they can sell their cattle, once established. But the long trek is the frame on which the book’s many events hang; it is a spacious, romantic, and dangerous venture, and the author clearly luxuriates in it.
Men die en route of lightning strokes, of snakebites, of wounds from Indian lances; to punish thieves and killers, there are a good many impromptu hangings along the way. The band of cowboys fights off Indians and captures outlaws, struggles through sandstorms and clouds of grasshoppers, survives a dry stretch, and negotiates the sinful snares of Ogallala. Because their difficulties are so many and various, they don’t need, and as a rule don’t get, meticulous solutions; one simply succeeds another. The ex-Rangers don’t have any compunction about hanging horse thieves on the spot—that, after all, is the code of the Old West. They don’t pause to reflect that the horses they themselves are riding had been stolen. Perhaps the fact that they were stolen from Mexicans, not “white men,” makes the difference.
Inward complications are provided, as usual, by women. In the distant past, taciturn Captain Call had, apparently, an affair whose sole product, a young cowboy named Newt, is riding with the gang. Call cannot bring himself to talk about the relationship or acknowledge his son; he is, to the distress of his friend Augustus, very up-tight about the whole matter. Though he trembles on the verge of saying something to Newt, the novel ends without his actually having done so. Captain McCrae, though the more loquacious of the two, also has inhibitions, caused by the memory of a lost love, Clara, who had been a bit too tough for him, and he a bit too elusive for her. With regrets on both sides, they had gone their separate ways, and their rediscovery of each other in darkest Nebraska is similarly inconclusive—it is a nostalgic but not enthusiastic meeting.
The most vividly present of the ladies in the book is Lorena, a “sporting woman” in the whorehouse at Lonesome Dove, who is picked up by Jake Spoon, an old associate of Call’s, carried off on the Montana trek, abandoned by Jake, abducted by a bestial Indian, sold to a war party, gang-raped, rescued by Captain McCrae, and finally left to the care of Clara. But neither she nor any of the other women has a strong part in the novel. One can say that Lonesome Dove is “a man’s book”: emphasizing traditional male codes and values and including the less attractive ones. A grandiose but moving climax is reached in the final pages. McCrae, having been mortally wounded in a single-handed stand against some Indians, asks his partner Call to bury him in a little peach orchard by the Guadalupe River in southern Texas, where he had once been idyllically happy with Clara. Call gives his word; and single-handedly, on a disintegrating wagon, carries his partner’s mummified body two thousand miles cross-country to bury it in the right spot. It is a barbaric, stately, Homeric cortege; it is also Quixotic and absurd, as well as a dazzling piece of imaginative writing:
Before he reached Kansas, word had filtered ahead of him that a man was carrying a body home to Texas. The plain was filled with herds, for it was full summer. Cowboys spread the word, soldiers spread it. Several times he met trappers, coming east from the Rockies, or buffalo hunters who were finding no buffalo. The Indians heard—Pawnee and Arapahoe and Ogallala Sioux. Sometimes he would ride past parties of braves, their horses fat on spring grass, come to watch his journey. Some were curious enough to approach him, even to question him. Why did he not bury the compañero? Was he a holy man whose spirit must have a special place?
No, Call answered. Not a holy man. Beyond that he couldn’t explain. He had come to feel that Augustus had probably been out of his mind at the end, though he hadn’t looked it, and that he had been out of his mind to make the promise he had.
Lonesome Dove won McMurtry the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and probably more popular success than any of his other novels; it moved, after all, largely in the soft tradition of the cowboy romance–adventure story, along trails well worn by Zane Grey and Clarence E. Mulford; it would have been relatively easy to reprise with modifications. But McMurtry’s latest fiction, Texasville, undertakes to break new ground, paradoxically by returning to Thalia some thirty years after the events of The Last Picture Show. Many of the adolescents of the earlier novel reappear, somewhat timeworn, and Thalia is as unappealing as ever. But in the interval the Texas oil business has been through an unparalleled cycle of violent boom and bust. Duane Moore, back from the Korean War, caught on to the boom and made out of it more millions than we can do anything but guess about. But the bust caught him with four new oil rigs, bought on credit of three million dollars apiece. Now they are sitting on a vacant lot and quietly rusting, piling up interest he cannot pay, while the price of oil sinks somewhere near fifteen dollars a barrel.
Throughout Texasville the remains of his former prosperity surround Duane like an assembly of mocking mourners. He has a twelve-thousand-square-foot house with an uncountable number of water beds, a hot tub, a satellite-dish antenna, a two-story log doghouse, a BMW plus pickups, and a $60,000 condo that his wife has just bought for their older son and his new (but obviously impermanent) wife. But the house is too big and the kitchen appliances don’t work, the hot tub is ridiculous in a climate where the temperature rises to ninety-five or one hundred degrees most days, the VCR is used only occasionally to look at a porn movie, the BMW is shaking itself to pieces on dirt roads, and the dog won’t sleep in the doghouse. As the novel opens, Duane is sitting in his hot tub, idly shooting the doghouse to pieces with a .44 Magnum. He has $850 in the bank and debts of twelve million. He has recently accepted chairmanship of a committee to help Thalia celebrate its hundredth birthday. In its early days, the town was called Texasville, hence the title of the novel; but neither the past, the present, nor the future of the town offers much in the way of consolation for disconsolate Duane.
His family life is just as much in disarray as his finances. Karla, his strident, still-beautiful wife, who has read in Cosmopolitan about open marriages, has opened hers up to any likely male she can attract; daughter Nellie is out to set a world record for short-term marriages, and son Dickie not only sleeps his way through the town but peddles marijuana for kicks and cracks up automobiles at the rate of four a year. There is also a pair of twins about twelve years old, on whom Duane says the best word: “They got personalities like wild dogs.”
Various other characters from The Last Picture Show survive in Texasville, but they are scarcely a source of animation. Sonny Crawford, convinced he is a total failure, slips into more and more frequent fits of mental vacancy; his wife has left him, and he divides his time between living in Duane’s big house and jail, where he’s convinced he belongs. Lester Marlow, who had once aspired after Jacy, is now the town banker, under indictment on seventy-three counts of bank fraud. In this wasteland Karla is loudly dissatisfied with her sex life, Duane’s mistress Janine is bored with him, and his new girlfriend Suzie talks too persistently about the sexual prowess of Duane’s son Dickie. Not surprisingly, Duane is tired most of the time, given to frequent headaches.
What are the hopes for growth, if not redemption, in this stony, sterile heap of apathetic lives? The oldest and tritest logic of fiction is that things have to move; if they’re at the bottom, there’s no way to go but up. And indeed, phantoms of recovery do now and then drift across Duane’s horizon. One of his rigs hits a big pool of oil; but by then the price of oil is so low that the stuff is not worth taking out of the ground. In return for a share of his future production, he tries to get a crusty and immensely rich oil man in Odessa (Texas) to buy his rigs; but the answer is no. And Jacy Farrow, the girl with whom he was in love thirty years before, comes back to town after years in Europe, including two failed marriages and a small-time career in the movies.
Given the conventions of fiction, Jacy’s return—she lives in a big house full of unread books—ought to provide some sort of climax, but it doesn’t. When she takes part in the halfhearted, ludicrous centennial pageant, playing Eve to Duane’s embarrassed Adam, there is no scene of passionate congress; there is no avowal (nothing much to avow), no hot-eyed restraint (nothing much to restrain).
The ground bass of the book is silent despair, and efforts to rise above it end, almost invariably, in fiasco. The centennial celebration falls apart under the impact of two explosive, irrelevant events: an oversize windstorm fills the town with impenetrable thickets of tumbleweed, and the kids of the town, finding an unguarded truck laden with sixty thousand eggs, stage an egg fight that leaves the town dripping with slime. During the celebration, there is a battle between Prohibitionists and beer drinkers; but nothing comes of it, and next morning the whole thing is forgotten. The novel ends in a tableau of sorrow and frustration, with Jacy weeping on Duane’s shoulder for her lost son, Karla cradling the increasingly imbecilic Sonny, and the kids careening around them in their joyous, idiotic games.
On the face of things, what could sound more repellent—a long novel about dumb, mostly disagreeable people, without manners or intelligence, caught in a dreary village, to whom nothing significant ever happens? This is a fair description of Texasville, yet in retrospect it is larger than the materials of which it is made. The characters have endurance and they have vitality; the very landscape partakes of their cruel, sour humor, blowing up ugly, violent jokes out of its everyday monotony. In a late chapter Duane takes a moment to sit alone on the courthouse steps and see his life as a threadbare sheet being ripped up for rags; there’s nothing in the scene of self-pity, but a sense of inevitability as deep as anything in Thomas Hardy. Texasville is far from conventional storytelling; perhaps for that reason, the impression it makes is strong, maybe indelible.
Long ago I saw a picture painted by a wretchedly unhappy young woman. I have never forgotten it, and for me it summarizes the world of Texasville. It showed a desolate landscape, all rocks, sand, and brush, painted in Daliesque detail. Across the desert from foreground to horizon were scattered stone structures of different sizes but all the same shape. A flight of stairs went up one side to the top; the other side was a sheer drop. Years ago they didn’t look to me like oil rigs, but now, in a kind of retrospective rearrangement, they do.
August 13, 1987