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.
There are currently some nine million volumes of McMurtry’s books in print—a couple dozen of them best sellers—and many have been made into successful films and television miniseries. So it seems all the more astonishing that—a decade or so after leaving Texas—McMurtry began returning, a step at a time, to Archer City, population 1,748, the town that Susan Sontag once told him he had turned into his own theme park. “He hated Washington,” Marcia Carter, his friend and partner in the D.C. bookstore, told The Washington Post. “He doesn’t like the people, doesn’t like the trees, doesn’t like the closed-in feeling. He just doesn’t transplant well.” She was nonetheless surprised that he decamped for home: “I never thought he’d return to Archer City. It’s so small and limited. There was no reason to go back.”
Apparently, there was. In Cadillac Jack, McMurtry’s 1982 satire of life in the nation’s capital, one of the Texas characters says: “There is a great tendency to return unto the first place…. The home of one’s youth. The scene of the first humiliations.” In 1980, McMurtry moved his book collection back to his family’s ranch house; in 1987, with one of his sisters, he opened a bookstore in Archer City, the Blue Pig (after the famous shoats of Lonesome Dove); and two years later, in an almost Dickensian development, he bought the biggest mansion in town, previously owned by an oilman, Will Taylor, whose second-story light McMurtry once watched from his own home, across a hayfield, imagining that he and the oilman were “the only two people in Archer City who liked to read all night.” Installing 20,000 books there and in the carriage house behind it, he then proceeded to buy up warehouses around the town courthouse and turn them into Archer City’s own Booked Up, with a stock of around 200,000 volumes, packing in more books per capita than anywhere else in the country. Archer City—which McMurtry once bemoaned as “bookless”—is now said to have the largest selection of quality used books between Manhattan and Berkeley.
The dramatic oddity of McMurtry’s story is heightened by an experience he’s called “the change”: in 1991, he suffered a heart attack, underwent quadruple-bypass surgery, and afterward fell into a crippling depression, unable to read or work, lying on a friend’s couch for a year. But, like all the McMurtrys—whom he once described as “near-fanatic workers” (his Uncle Johnny, who had broken his leg nearly a dozen times, had his cowboys “wire him on his horses with baling wire” to do his chores)—he couldn’t keep still for long and has made an astonishing comeback. He might have written the advertisement for his bookstore about himself: “Miraculous birth! Visit the newly born book town of Archer City, Texas, and help the endless migration of good books continue.”
McMurtry has often compared his various endeavors with books and words to ranching:
Unfit for ranch work because of my indifference to cattle…I went instead into the antiquarian book trade, becoming, in effect, a book rancher, herding books into larger and larger ranches (I now have filled a whole town with them, my equivalent of the King Ranch)…. But the metaphor of herding can be pushed even further, to writing itself: what is it but a way of herding words? First I try to herd a few desirable words into a sentence, and then I corral them into small pastures called paragraphs, before spreading them across the spacious ranges of a novel.
He’s spoken often, in interviews since his heart surgery, of being finished with novels (despite having written half a dozen since then) and being sick of westerns (his latest, Boone’s Lick, was published in 1999). Never one to stand idle, however, he has been experimenting with small, localized herds, virtually inventing a new form of his own in a series of short memoirs, which are simultaneously meditations, reading lists, and travel essays. The first, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, encompassed three essays about his family’s history in Archer County, the surreal experience of emerging as a writer from the ahistorical West, and his career as a book scout. The second, Roads: Driving America’s Great Highways, combines travel writing of a high order—describing his compulsive, peculiarly American highway trips—with a dense education in the history of travel writing and obscure pockets of American literature (from Terry Southern’s Red Dirt Marijuana to Clancy Sigal’s “neglected American masterpiece,” Going Away).
Critics have seemed confounded by this late flowering of the McMurtry talent, his flouting of genre expectations and new economies of scale. (Several of his novels broke the eight-hundred-page barrier.) Walter Benjamin was dismissed as “epigrammatic browsings” and Roads as “hasty travel chat.” Paradise, at first glance, might seem to the hidebound even more eccentric than the first two, a meditation on Polynesia and Texas:
I have come to the same paradise—Tahiti—a place whose beauty neither writers nor painters nor mariners have ever managed to overstate, in order to think and write about my parents, Hazel and Jeff McMurtry…. The whole of their forty-three-year marriage was spent well inland, in Archer County, Texas. Many people like Archer County, and a few people love it, but no one would be likely to think it an earthly paradise.
If, as McMurtry says of Milton, “Paradise Lost is the great corrective to sloppy thinking about paradise,” then McMurtry’s Paradise is a great corrective to sloppy memoir writing, of which there is currently a fair amount. Succinct but complete, it is a tiny, melancholy masterpiece capturing the strangely passive experience of growing older and watching as the lives of parents and previous generations come into view, appearing before us finished, in their entirety, upon their deaths.
The photograph in the frontispiece of McMurtry’s young parents—Jeff McMurtry with a jaunty grin under his cowboy hat, Hazel with a broad, lively smile—is particularly poignant, given the sad and occasionally hilarious sketch of their lives in the opening chapter, “My Parents and Polynesia.” The McMurtrys were driven, their son says, by an “almost desperate need to remain respectable,” a need instilled by the hazards of fortune on the plains and the Depression.
They married relatively late in life and lived for a brief, disastrous period with Jeff McMurtry’s parents. Disgusted by her new rival, Jeff’s mother once slapped her daughter-in-law, “a slap that echoed through forty-years of marriage.” The couple eventually moved to a house built only fifty yards south, owing to the expense of the water line, but took to battling over that slap and an assortment of other domestic matters. Their son suggests that they were “roughly as neurotic as Kafka, Rilke, and Proust put together.” They were incapable of traveling—or even enjoying a forty-second wedding anniversary trip to D.C. that their son insisted they take—because of Jeff’s “hyperdutiful” commitment to work and Hazel’s stubborn fears:
At some point in her childhood two mules ran away with a wagon she was in; though not injured physically in that runaway, from that moment on she was frightened, not just of mules but of everything…. In her mind’s eye, swimming led inevitably to drowning, flying to falling, driving to car wrecks, walking to snakebite, the highways to murder and rape, and visits to big cities to even more certain murder and rape….
In my sixty-four years I’ve never met another person whose anxieties were as profound and as far-reaching, or whose negativism was so all-encompassing…. If a child happened to be swinging in a backyard swing, with the gates shut and no snakes or pedophiles in sight, my mother would come up with a scenario in which the child stepped out of the swing and had its skull cracked by the swing board.
Paradise captures the peripatetic, often interrupted quality of a traveler’s thoughts: old worries (McMurtry keeps trying, and often failing, to call home to check on his ailing mother) are subsumed in new distractions, as he bemusedly takes in the sights and his fellow travelers on the freighter Aranui that carries them from Tahiti to the islands of the South Seas. Of his mother, he soon realizes, “I haven’t really escaped her. There are three or four variants of her among the passengers…; they resemble her in their bossiness, pickiness, and implacable distrust of anything not mainstream American.” His Texas eye finds the familiar everywhere. The tiny isolated settlements of the islands remind him of “some of the drying-up small towns on the Great Plains—will they be able to keep the hospital open? Can they afford a new school teacher, improvements on the gym, et cetera?” And he has seen the likes of the skinny pigs on the island of Takapoto before: “I have survived into my sixty-fourth year by never underestimating the belligerence of swine.”
About pigs and tourists, McMurtry is amusing. But as he ponders the similarity between his parents’ emotional isolation and the isolation of Gauguin’s native bride, Teha’amana, on her island—their “innocence within history”—Paradise takes on a predominantly darker tone, a sense that life, like buffalo, will carry us where it will. Speaking of his parents’ young faces in the photograph, he writes: “He was a bright hope—so was she—and yet life turned out from under them like a fine cutting horse will turn out from under an inexperienced rider.” He sees that dark strain even in paradise, especially in paradise. He ponders the tedium, the sporadic violence (and cannibalism), the “force of monotony”: “Paradise has a built-in flaw.” What interests him about Gauguin, he says,
is that he looked hard at the earthly paradise, both in Tahiti and in Atuona, and saw that it was sad. He looked as hard as anyone has at the languor, even the hopelessness, at the edge of the fleshly life. Much as he loved and tried to draw the beauty, he saw, always, the ache within it.
This is true, too, of Larry McMurtry, who has looked hard at the American West, our paradise, and seen that beauty and that ache. There has always been a tension in his work between a nostalgia that springs from a love of place—that paradisaical “hill of youth”—and a hardheaded, almost merciless aversion to sentimentality about its human history, a history, so often, of brutality and failure. That tension has been a core energy in novels from The Last Picture Show to Lonesome Dove to Duane’s Depressed, an energy that welds tenderness and violence together in absolutely convincing ways. The hot resentment that powered that energy has tempered and resolved in these later memoirs into a cooler tone, one that can calmly encompass even his mother’s death:
In Archer City I stopped at my bookshop and threw a few bales of mail in the car before driving to Wichita Falls to see my mother. When I walked into her room she was alive, but her eyes were unfocused or, it might be, were focused on the Other Place, the abyss, the infinite, the one big adventure she was not long going to be able to avoid. “Hi Mom, I’m back,” I said. When I squeezed her hand there was no response. I was there but she was far, as far as the Marquesas, near the place where the light leaves. She had, perhaps, been waiting, though, and perhaps knew I was home. She died the next afternoon.
McMurtry has commented often about his dismay over the public reception of Lonesome Dove, the way in which that novel somehow came to perpetuate the very myths about the West that he had intended to—and did—debunk. “Lonesome Dove was a critical book,” he has said. “But that’s not how it was perceived. The romance of the West is so powerful, you can’t really swim against the current. Whatever truth about the West is printed, the legend is always more potent.” What he may not have figured on was that his readers—as they have from the beginning—would fall under the spell of his voice, a voice so plain, unpretentious, and persuasive that his audience—rather like a herd of cattle—barely noticed where they were being driven and what was ultimately to become of them. In Paradise, our expulsion is accomplished so deftly—the journey so pleasant and involving—that we barely notice where we are until that last page, that last paragraph, which leads us right up to death. As McMurtry’s old cowboy, Augustus McCrae, says, “The earth is mostly just a boneyard. But pretty in the sunlight.”
October 4, 2001