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Saboteur in Texas

Sin Killer

by Larry McMurtry
Simon and Schuster, 300 pp., $ 25.00
Larry McMurtry
Larry McMurtry; drawing by David Levine

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.”

It is astonishing enough that one person could be on a first-name basis with so much of the historical experience of Texas—the original conquest; the destruction of the Indians; the rise of the ranching economy; the end of the open range; the birth of the small towns; their subsequent decline; the emigration from the countryside; the rise of cities. Just one of these themes could have kept a lesser writer busy for a whole career. McMurtry has mapped them all.

3.

In El “Martín Fierro, published in 1953, Jorge Luis Borges wrote:

Gaucho poetry is one of the most singular events recorded in the history of literature. It is not, as its name seems to suggest, poetry written by gauchos; educated people, gentlemen from Buenos Aires or Montevideo, composed it.

Borges was, like McMurtry, a famous bibliophile and one of the most erudite men of his day. Yet both balanced their intellectualism with a nostalgia for the lives of their fierce, earthy ancestors, people who had no use for airy literary preoccupations. Borges revered the generals who fought Argentina’s wars; McMurtry the sinewy pioneers “who came to a nearly absolute emptiness and began the filling of it themselves.”

There is an important difference between the two. Borges was born in a posh neighborhood in a settled capital. His distance from the heroic phase of his nation’s history allowed him to see Argentina aesthetically—and made it difficult for him to apprehend its ghastly realities. (When at last he did, he departed, disgusted, to die abroad.) Borges’s reflections on the South American western are warm and celebratory, which McMurtry’s writings on the North American West can never be. Like the story of the gauchos, and despite the existence of a few literary cowboys, the story of the West was mainly told by señores de Dallas o de Los Angeles. And Larry McMurtry has never been a señor. He was too close to the rural past to romanticize it, and he saw the inconsistencies inherent in westerns too clearly to write them with a straight face.

He has seemed determined to sabotage the genre that has made his name, describing the western as “a mode of entertainment” and lamenting that “in this day and age everything is taken seriously, even the Western.” He was not inclined to take Louis L’Amour and John Wayne as representatives of real experience; his westerns were more about the genre than the West. Anything for Billy (1988), a novel about Billy the Kid, is a “parody” of the dime-store novels of his youth, he has said; and Lonesome Dove is an effort “to subvert the Western myth with irony and parody”—an effort that he regrets his readers have missed.

But there was more to the western than irony. The experience it commemorated was tragic. McMurtry knew without having to be told that conquering that “nearly absolute emptiness” was tedious and barbarous and hot, less a matter of ringing verses than of generations of thankless labor. He also knew, from his fathers and uncles, how powerful the nostalgia was for that life after it had vanished. He saw the heartbreak of cowboys vegetating in seedy suburbs or plumping up behind the wheels of Cadillacs. He understood that for such people the western was an essential, living connection to an extinct way of life.

How to resolve this struggle, so typical of Texas, between a core of real experience and an asphyxiating cushion of fraud? McMurtry seems to have wrestled with this problem throughout his career, and the attempt to unite pulp farce and grand tragedy animates his new western, The Berrybender Narratives. In four volumes—Sin Killer (2002), The Wandering Hill (2003), By Sorrow’s River (2003), and Folly and Glory (2004)—McMurtry follows the rich English Berrybender family as they careen through the West, tripping from disaster to disaster, between 1832 and 1836.

But what are these English grandees doing there in the first place? McMurtry first suggests that the lecherous Lord Berrybender was beginning to feel put upon by his many bastards; but in the first novel in the series, Sin Killer, there seems to be another motivation: boredom.

Whim alone was their lodestar and guide—whim it was that caused them to pack up and leave their great house in Northamptonshire; whim had brought them through America to their present resting place on a sandbar in the Missouri River—and only so that Lord Berrybender could shoot different animals from those he shot at home.

As implausible as this sounds, the West really was, in those years, packed with would-be Humboldts. The American West represented a great unknown that fascinated sedentary Europeans (and Easterners) just as Africa and the polar regions would later. The West attracted artists and scientists, but it also attracted a kind of tourist familiar from India and South Africa: the jaded rich man who wanted to “shoot different animals from those he shot at home.”

Such recreational swashbucklers rarely traveled on a shoestring. Lord Berrybender brings along what seem like hundreds of other people, including a large part of his large family, commensurate staff, and lots of assorted hangers-on. His entourage fills a luxurious steamboat heading up the Missouri River. Setting this menagerie loose in the wild, wild West gives McMurtry—a writer, remember, who has lamented that the western is taken seriously—ample opportunity to work in the tradition of the writers whose work fills drugstores and Wal-Marts. His sex scenes are pure camp—one has a leggy cellist tickling the old Lord’s balls with her bow—and feature saucy exchanges like the following:

Jim continued to sniff her neck. “I expect you’ve been missing our ruts,” he said, after a moment.

“I have…of course I have,” she said, startled that he had put it so baldly. “I have been missing our ruts.”

The English cast seems to have spent a lot of time paging through thesauruses—

“A baby?” Tasmin said again, convinced suddenly it was true. “But what will we do? We have no domicile—not even a cabin.”

—and the Indians hearken to an age before political correctness:

“How many men does it take to row it?” he asked.

“No one rows it—it is a steamboat,” Draga said. “It eats wood. If there is no wood it eats coal.”

The Bad Eye didn’t like the sound of that at all. A boat that ate wood could not be a normal boat.

“It sounds like a god,” he said.

A series of mishaps places Tasmin, Lord Berrybender’s randy, headstrong daughter, at the head of the chaotic group. She is initially enraptured by the physical glory of the New World, marveling at its emptiness and grandeur. She falls in love with the man who seems the personification of this landscape: the rough frontiersman Jim Snow, known as the “Sin Killer” for his terrifying, Old Testament theology. His fundamentalism has not prevented him from taking two Indian wives prior to Tasmin, who is undaunted by his past and convinced she will soon whip him into shape. But despite her best efforts at domestication, Jim cannot be made fit for society. He is strong, silent, and sexy, but unable to experience or even to comprehend any complex emotion. He is, McMurtry suggests, an American, a westerner, a creature too hardened by the extreme conditions of life in the wilderness to understand an educated, civilized person like Tasmin. She, in turn, feels rejected, and, in her bemusement, seeks sexual gratification elsewhere.

At the beginning of the second book, The Wandering Hill, the party is stranded by the harsh winter in a fort along the Yellowstone River. Lord Berrybender, who has by now lost several body parts and a good bit of his mind, is outraged to discover the German Prince Maximilian zu Wied-Neuwied breathing down his neck. The Lord had assumed that the entire Missouri Basin was his private preserve. He cannot conceive “by what right a German prince had wandered out of the forests of Europe and invaded the rich hunting range which he supposed would be wholly his to plunder.”

The prince (1782–1867) was a real historical figure, a naturalist and explorer who wrote an important account of Brazil. He wanders through these pages alongside a whole panoply of other figures from western history. There are the artists Karl Bodmer and George Catlin. There is Sacagawea’s son Pomp Charbonneau, whom Tasmin eventually deflowers; and the young Kit Carson, a blushing frontier Cherubino. Only a few of these fascinating people will be known to readers, McMurtry has done little to distinguish them from the many other purely fictional characters, who appear and then vanish with unsettling frequency.

“Our help has dropped like flies already, but what is that to Papa? He’ll just hire more help,” one young Berrybender notes after a spate of appalling deaths.

A happy consequence of unloading the cabbages was the discovery of their missing sister Ten, aged four years; little Ten had evidently been living happily among the cabbages for some weeks, missed by no one.

The characters don’t seem to care if their fellow travelers live or die. Is this a reflection of the author’s attitude toward his own manufactures? The reader can be wary of getting involved with people whose own creator hesitates not at all to misplace, dismember, and murder them. Is it just indifference?

It is, of course, possible that McMurtry is using these mounds of corpses to debunk the Western myth promoted by the dime-store western. There was a real human cost to the American expansion:

The plains, the hills, the West were far stronger than any strength they had to set against it. It had already crushed two of [Tasmin’s] brothers: Bobbety and the mysterious Seven. It had killed most of their servants: Fraulein Pfretzskaner, Gladwyn, Señor Yanez, Milly, Tim, Master Jeremy Thaw, and good George Aitken, the steamship captain. And of course it had taken Pomp, a man adept in its ways.

The stunning body count (of which the above catalog is but a small sample) certainly magnifies the achievement of the survivors, like Tasmin, who remain to build the new West. The obstacles they must overcome are spectacular and spectacularly rendered; the descriptions of natural disasters—buffalo stampedes, blizzards, plagues—are the strongest passages in the series. In Sin Killer, a French priest says: “Snow is so much more a thing to be welcomed when it falls on cobblestones…or ancient walls…or lamplighters…or the shawls of prostitutes.” In the wilderness, nature, spectacular from the deck of the steamboat, is merely terrifying. McMurtry likewise resists romanticizing that wilderness’s human inhabitants: many of the Indians are so monstrous, especially in the glee with which they torture captives, that a reader can hardly mourn their collective passing.

But what is the alternative? The strength that carries the survivors through, the vigor that subdues the West, is blunt; it has nothing to do with the newcomers’ superior refinements. The very few who do survive are, quite simply, more physically powerful, luckier, and more skillful with weapons than the people they displace. The least of their advantages is a deluded belief in their frou-frou “civilization”: the steamship, representing modern science, is reduced to a pitiable wreck; Jim Snow’s religion is coarse and barbarous; and Tasmin’s library of libertine books, salvaged from repeated disasters, is repeatedly decimated. After one calamity she rushes desperately around, gathering “every page she saw—there a page of Byron, here one of Mrs. Edgeworth’s, there several pages of Father Geoffrin’s beloved Marmontel.”

4.

Argentina’s other great writer, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, saw his nation’s dilemma plainly, as the subtitle of Facundo (1845) makes clear: “Civilization and Barbarism on the Argentine Plains.” But few Argentines—even those, like Borges, who so badly wanted to be—have been convinced that civilization is triumphantly or permanently established there.

Americans, on the other hand, see their own history as one glorious march toward progress, onward and upward, from sea to shining sea. We are serenely confident that our civilization bestows benefits on everything it touches. Texas—that vast repository of every American extreme—does not so much reject criticism as ignore it. “Nothing short of insult moves people in Texas,” McMurtry has written. Even that seems charitable. After darkening thousands of pages, trying to provoke Texans into thinking less of themselves and more about themselves, the brambly McMurtry now finds himself a tourist attraction. But the role of the traditional Texas writer has always been to be a team player, to show up for the chamber of commerce meetings and paint lovely pictures of the bluebonnets: to be a uniter, not a divider.

To see Larry McMurtry as a heartwarming object of local pride is to do a shocking disservice to his daring and tragic vision. His great theme, he has written, is “the contrast between old and new, province and capital, wild and settled.” This is, of course, the great theme of all New World literature, from Melville and Henry James to Euclides da Cunha and Sarmiento. Unlike Sarmiento, however, McMurtry still hasn’t decided which side deserved to win—or even which side was which. Was capital better than province, new better than old, settled better than wild? He has chronicled them all. But McMurtry has yet to deify his culture, like the naive young Borges, who proclaimed that “the plains and the suburb are gods.”3

In the last Berrybender novel, Folly and Glory, McMurtry shows Captain William Clark, veteran of the first great western expedition, in retirement at St. Louis. “One wall of his office was covered with a huge map of the trans-Mississippi regions; the Captain loved nothing more than augmenting his map, adding a stream here or a pass there, whenever he was brought information that he considered reliable.” McMurtry places sad, nagging doubts in the mind of the heroic explorer:

Had it been glory, or had it been folly, the unrelenting American push? Were town and farm better than red men and buffalo? Bill Clark didn’t know, but he could not but feel bittersweet about the changes he himself had helped bring.

Years ago, McMurtry put it another way: “One sometimes wonders if Bowie and Travis and the rest would have fought so hard for this land if they had known how many ugly motels and shopping centers would eventually stand on it.” One smiles; but this is perhaps the most serious question that can be posed in America. To doubt the value of the western conquest is to question the value of progress, the country’s essential faith. Joan Didion’s recent masterpiece Where I Was From raises the same question about the founding of California: “For what exactly, and at what cost, had one been redeemed?”

Larry McMurtry still isn’t sure.

  1. 1

    Lyons Press, 2003, pp. 169–172. 

  2. 2

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

  3. 3

    Borges later—and with great good sense—renounced the entire book, El tamaño de mi esperanza (1926), in which this alarming statement appears. Despite his determination to suppress the work, his widow has authorized its republication, and it is now easily available.