The Underappreciated Genius of Larry McMurtry
Plainspoken and unpretentious, McMurtry was one of our greatest novelists because he understood the importance of storytelling to human endurance.
Larry McMurtry’s great subject was Texas and its environs, which sometimes earned him the designation of “regional writer,” but Texas is larger than France. Is France a “region”? McMurtry’s novels bridged the West and its men and women from the days of Billy the Kid (Anything for Billy, 1989) all the way to the cheating/charming English professor Flap in modern-day Houston in Terms of Endearment. Taken as a whole, McMurtry’s work constitutes one of the greatest achievements of any American novelist — rich, vivid, soulful, as disarmingly beautiful as the sere landscape and always narratively potent. McMurtry’s novels keep moving and developing as restlessly as Texas itself.
McMurtry died at 84 on Thursday in Archer City, Texas, a short drive from where he was born a rancher’s son in a place where “the only bookstore I had was the paperback rack at the drugstore.” He filled that void by building one of the world’s greatest used bookstores, Booked Up, a monument to the man who was an unprepossessing repository of deep wisdom. This seemingly nondescript little town (population 1,834), fictionalized as Thalia in his writing, proved as rich to him as Chicago was to Saul Bellow or Newark to Philip Roth. Understanding the importance of location, the New York–born filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich filmed the 1971 movie version of McMurtry’s 1966 novel The Last Picture Show in Archer City, in poignant black and white.
Like John Steinbeck and Stephen King, McMurtry was a writing machine. And like them he was unfairly reduced to a mere spinner of yarns within the academic-literary establishment. He produced more than 30 novels, many of them hundreds of thousands of words long (though all were easy reads), plus more than a dozen works of nonfiction and many screenplays, both credited and not. In one of his memoirs, Hollywood (2011), he said he had worked on nearly 70 movies, though his name is on only a few of them. Like most novelists, he grumbled about what screen panjandrums did to his scenarios, shaping his distaste into the 1987 memoir Film Flam.
Screenwriting was not his passion but it naturally embraced him because he was an absolute master of the core elements of storytelling: characters, plot, dialogue. Yet as much as any insistently literary novelist, he understood and captured the intricacy of human relationships. As his success grew, McMurtry wandered off to the big cities, first to Houston to earn an M.F.A. at Rice University and to teach there, and he spent much time in Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles. In his 60s, after a 1991 heart attack, quadruple bypass surgery, and a period of depression, he came back home and concentrated on his books — collecting them, reading them, living in them. The books, and his small-town Texas, were the only world he needed. He kept revisiting earlier characters and taking them off in new directions; the chancer Duane Moore, from The Last Picture Show (Jeff Bridges played him in the movie and its sequel Texasville) became his alter ego over time and would form the center of five novels over more than 40 years. Duane’s Depressed (1999), deeply informed by McMurtry’s own struggles with the disorder, begins with the unexpected comedy of an inexplicable situation: The title character, after driving a pickup for 30 years, decides to walk everywhere. Consternation ensues.
What set McMurtry apart from even most of the greatest male novelists was that he was genuinely fascinated with the interior lives of women rather than limiting his attentions to how they either helped or hindered the pursuits of men. That’s what gave The Last Picture Show such unusual sensitivity and balance; though inspired by McMurtry’s own upbringing, it is as attentive to the middle-aged housewives as it is to the young bucks on the football team. Maureen Orth of Vanity Fair, to whom Lonesome Dove (1985) is dedicated, said flatly that the novelist “loved, respected and appreciated women more than any man I ever knew.” He would tell her, astutely, that women never started out with enough confidence, and even when they acquired some, a “bottomless insecurity” lingered. Emma, from Terms of Endearment, was his special favorite creation, through whom he considered the underpinnings of ordinary life. He termed that book his “most European novel,” writing it after spending a couple of years reading Balzac, Tolstoy, and Eliot. “I did hope to search a little less superficially among the flea market of details which constitute human existence,” he wrote in a 1989 preface to the novel.
His real-life relationships with women were complicated. After an early marriage to a fellow writer and professor, Jo Scott, many years later he found a life and professional partner in Diana Ossana, with whom he collaborated on many projects, including their Oscar-winning script for Brokeback Mountain (adapted and greatly expanded from an eleven-page Annie Proulx short story). When McMurtry finally remarried in 2011 (to Ken Kesey’s widow, Faye, whom he had met decades earlier in the ’60s), the three of them lived together.
Though he wrote with a light hand, avoiding intrusive authorial tricks and, seemingly, any socio-political agenda — both of which choices perhaps cost him respect from literary snobs — McMurtry once told Mother Jones that his chief intent was to dismantle what he saw as the myth of great white men taming the West. He saw cowboy culture as a progressive revisionist academic would. “I haven’t succeeded at all,” he complained in 2014. “It’s just as racist and misogynistic as it ever was. The image of the cowboy is one of the dominant images in American culture.” In his masterpiece Lonesome Dove and many other Westerns, he reduced the grandeur and nobility of the cowboys-and-Indians frontier to so many disasters, stumbles, and accidents, with much raping and thievery along the way. “Would you like your menfolk to be that way?” he asked in a Mother Jones interview. “The Western myth is a heroic myth, and yet settling the West was not heroic. It ended with Custer; it was the end of the settlement narrative, which had been going on since 1620.” Yet at the same time he was, perhaps contrary to his own intent, building up a story of human perseverance against unimaginable misfortune, masculinity very much central to the ultimate triumph. Call and Gus, the Texas Rangers who successfully lead a cattle drive to Montana, became archetypes of American manhood.
Yet McMurtry was stunned to win the Pulitzer Prize for the book, and taken aback by the immense popularity of the saga when it was adapted for television, inspiring so many sequels and spinoffs that some characters were killed off more than once. In a typically dry and funny introduction to the 2000 edition of the book, he reflected on how artists “have sometimes found to their bafflement that they have been more or less trapped by the unexpected and unrelenting popularity of a work to which they themselves had initially attached little importance.” Dogs and housing subdivisions had been named after Lonesome Dove (the novel’s Texas border town but, metaphorically, also Call’s unacknowledged son by a prostitute). McMurtry continued, “I thought I had written about a harsh time and some pretty harsh people, but, to the public at large, I had produced something nearer to an idealization; instead of a poor man’s Inferno, filled with violence, faithlessness and betrayal, I had actually delivered a kind of Gone with the Wind of the West, a turnabout I’ll be mulling over for a long, long time.”
Perhaps a new generation will reconsider McMurtry through a revisionist lens, the way ’70s critics took up an interest in racism in John Ford’s The Searchers, which fizzled when it was released in 1956. But McMurtry can’t be reduced to mere messaging; he worked on the broadest possible canvas. In his characters there is all of humanity: tragedy and error and endurance and absurdity all of it filtered through deep understanding and controlled sorrow. McMurtry sketches the death of Lonesome Dove’s Gus McCrae with a heartrending, manful minimalism: “He saw a mist, red at first but then as silvery as the morning mists in the valleys of Tennessee.” In a 2010 preface, McMurtry wrote, “And the blue pigs walked all the way to Montana just to be eaten. Life ain’t for sissies, as Augustus might have said.”
On the occasion of being awarded the National Humanities medal, he said, “I don’t myself theorize,” but allowed that he was “saddened by what’s being lost.” Loss abounds in McMurtry’s work, but it coexists securely with acceptance. As a character in Duane’s Depressed tells the title figure, “The reason I made you read Proust is because it’s still the greatest catalogue of the varieties of disappointment human beings feel.” Crucially, though, wading slowly through a giant novel rebuilds Duane. Reading gives him the fortitude to go on living. It is narrative, our ability to make our lives matter by sharing our stories, that makes human sorrow endurable. McMurtry was not merely a great storyteller but a shrewd analyst of its place, which is at the heart of our human condition.