McMurtry Rides Again — and Again


(This column was first published in the April 19, 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)


Larry McMurtry, whose wonderful Pulitzer Prize winning Lonesome Dove brought the Western back into the front ranks of fiction and two of whose other novels evolved into the award-winning motion pictures Terms of Endearment and The Last Picture Show, continues to churn out excellent reads.


Boone's Lick (Simon & Schuster, 2000) is certainly lesser McMurtry, but even a minor book by this author is well worth reading. It is the story of a family crossing the western plains in a single wagon. Many of those who people this novel are stock characters, but McMurtry fleshes them out until they become individuals. Just so we come to know better Granpa Crackenthorpe, Baby Marcy, Uncle Seth who pines for the narrator's mother, still married to the wastrel husband-brother the nomads are searching for, the Shoshoni Charlie Seven Days and the motherly whore, Aunt Rosie McGee. Here is the crew getting ready to leave Boone's Lick for the unknown west:


"Now we were leaving the only place G.T. and Neva and I had ever lived. The fact of it almost made me queasy, for a while, though part of me was excited at the thought of traveling up the river and over the plains, into the country where the wild Indians lived, where there were elk and grizzly bears and lots of buffalo. It would be a big adventure -- maybe Ma would find Pa and satisfy her feelings about his behavior -- that was a part of it I just didn't understand, since there was no sign that Pa was behaving any differently than he had ever done.


"Still, I was leaving my home -- the big adventure was still just thoughts in my head, but our home was our place. The river, the town, the mules, the stables, the cabin, Uncle Seth's little camp under the stars, the wolf's den G.T. and I found, the geese overhead, the ducks that paddled around in big clusters along the shallows of the river, even the crawdads that G.T. trapped or the turtles that sank down, missing their heads, after Uncle Seth shot them -- the white frost in the fall and the sun swelling up from beyond the edge of the world: all that, we were leaving, and a sadness got mixed in with the thought of the big adventure we would have. All around Boone's Lick there were cabins that people had just left and never came back to -- many had emptied out because of the war. Once the people left, the woods and the weeds, the snakes and the spiders just seemed to take the cabins back. Pretty soon a few logs would roll down, and the roof would cave in. Within a year or two even a sturdy cabin would begin to look like a place nobody was ever going to come back to, or live in again.


"The thought that our cabin might cave in, become a place of snakes and spiders, owls and rats, made me feel lonely inside, because it had been such a cheerful place. It had been, despite the babies dying and Granma dying and Ma's sister Polly dying. Though I was there when the dyings happened I didn't remember them clearly; what I remembered was Granpa playing the fiddle and Ma singing, and her and Uncle Seth dancing around the table, on nights when Uncle Seth was in a dancing mood, which he seemed to get in at least once a week. G.T. fancied that he could play the Jew's harp, so he would join in, wailing, when Granpa played his fiddle.


"'I won't live in a downcast house,' Ma said to us, more than once. 'It's not fair to the young ones.'


"Even so I felt downcast when I looked at the wagon full of sacks and boxes and realized we were really leaving. Our cabin would soon be just another abandoned place -- if we didn't find Pa and get back to Boone's Lick soon, it would begin to fall down and cave in, like all the other abandoned cabins people had left.


"I guess everyone must have felt a little bit like I was feeling, that day. There was usually a lot of talk going on in our family -- joshing, bickering, fussing -- but everyone kind of kept quiet that last day -- kept to themselves. Ma had an absent look in her eye, as if she had already left and was just waiting for the day and the night to pass, so we could load ourselves in the wagon and head for the boat. Aunt Rosie had made good friends with baby Marcy -- they were so thick already that Marcy could hardly even tolerate Uncle Seth, a fact that irked him a little. The day seemed a lot longer than most days -- it passed with everybody mostly being quiet. Aunt Rosie's bruises had all turned purple, and she had to move carefully when she stood up.


"'This baby thinks I'm a clown, with purple eyes,' Aunt Rosie said. 'I expect that's why she likes me.'


"'She used to like me, before you turned her head,' Uncle Seth said.


"There was a full moon that night. G.T. wanted to go coon hunting, but I wasn't in the mood. Ma spent most of the night in the graveyard, sitting on her bench -- Aunt Rosie came out and sat with her for a while. She brought Marcy, who made quite a bit of progress with her crawling -- she was soon crawling around amid the little gravestones. Uncle Seth was restless -- he didn't approve of Marcy being allowed to crawl wherever she wanted to go.


"'You ought to keep better watch -- she could get on a snake,' I heard him say -- but the two women paid him no mind. Marcy kept crawling and Uncle Seth finally walked down to Boone's Lick, to visit the saloons."


The other book I comment on here has to have the most misleading (or simply non-informative) title I have come across lately. It is the autobiographical essay, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen (Simon & Schuster, 1999), a delightful book about McMurtry's roots in the West. Here we can see the source of this author's narrative power.


"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, setting twelve children afoot on the prairie grass, a covey of McMurtrys who soon scattered like quail in the direction of the even emptier Panhandle.


"The sense that resides in me most clearly when I think back on the twelve McMurtrys (all dead now) is of the intensity and depth of their hunger for land: American land, surveyed legal acreage that would relieve them of nomadism (and of the disenfranchisement of peasant Europe) and let everybody know that they were not shiftless people. (They came, like many other Scotch-Irish settlers in that region, from Missouri, against which there seemed to linger some slight prejudice; Missouri was thought to be lawless, a breeding ground for outlaws.) To the generation my grandparents belonged to, cut loose by the Civil War, all notions of permanence and respectability were inextricably woven into the dream of land tenure, or acreage that would always be holdable by themselves and their children. And yet the McMurtry boys who left the old folks and went to the Panhandle to seek -- and get -- land of their own were soon overtaken by irony and paradox. They got land, lots of it, yet what they had been before they had land -- cowboys -- beckoned them all their lives. It was the cowboy, a seminomadic figure who often owned nothing but a saddle, that gave rise to all the stories, all the songs, and many of the movies, when movies came. These aging ranchers, some of whose wild children were already well along in the process of losing the land they had worked so hard to acquire, had, at the end, as consolation for much loss and wastage, the knowledge that they had all, at least, been cowboys in their youth, men who had known the land when it was empty, a place of unpeopled horizons....


"When I came along, about a half century later, there were still only a few people to be seen, but life had nonetheless accumulated, in all its puzzling but pregnant detail. The covey of McMurtrys, all glamorous birds to me, had -- except for my father -- long since flown away. And yet, by then, there was a cook, a cowboy or two, my grandparents, occasional visitors (a fencing crew, a vet, a cattle buyer, a surveyor, an oil speculator), who, taken in the aggregate, comprised the beginnings of a sort of culture. In the evening, once the chores were done, people sat on the front porch (if it was summer) or around the fireplace (in the winter) and told stories.


"None of these stories were ever told to or directed at me; none of the Slovenly Peter, this-is-a-warning-little-boy stories ever came my way. But I was allowed to listen to whatever stories the adults were telling one another. At that time radio had not come, and when it did come it was at first too staticky to be worth listening to. Except for the occasional square dance, no one had any entertainment except the exchanging of experience that occurs in story-telling. So it was, no doubt, in rural places throughout the centuries; then, there was no media -- now, it seems, there's no life....


"One of the things I have been doing, in twenty novels,

is filling that same emptiness, peopling it, trying to imagine what the word 'frontier' meant to my grandparents (as opposed, say, to what it meant to Frederick Jackson Turner, already a coat-and-tie professor at the University of Wisconsin while my grandparents were building their first cabin and begetting yet more McMurtry quail on that hill in Archer County)."


And here is McMurtry on his own and his father's lives as cowboys: "I had no notion, as a boy -- not the faintest -- that I would end up a writer. It was not until my cousin went to war and left me those nineteen books that I even had a book to read; but I did know, early on, that I would have to deal with cowboying, either successfully or unsuccessfully, because there was nothing else in sight. I was given a horse at age three, and didn't take leave of cowboying until I was twenty-three. For twenty years I worked with my father and with the eight or nine ranchers with whom we swapped work. I realized early on that it would be unsuccess that awaited me because of my profound disinterest in cows. As soon as I got those nineteen books I began a subversive, deeply engrossing secret life as a reader. I very soon knew that reading would be the central and stable activity of my life, and that making a living would have to be made to fit in somehow, but if I could help it, it would not involve cows.


"I mainly liked the cowboys I worked with when I was young, but I sensed early on that we were only nominally of the same species. I didn't pop books into my saddlebags or my chaps pocket to read at lunchtime or when there were breaks in the work. There weren't many such breaks anyway -- my father was a firm believer in putting in a full day's work. Even though I never read while working cattle, I was soon thought to be a bookish boy anyway, and neither my father nor anyone else invested much hope in my future as a cowboy. They were possessed of enough savvy, those cowboys, to figure out immediately that I wasn't going to be doing what they did for a living -- not for long.


"The cowboys didn't care whether I stayed with their way of life or not, but for my father it was a trickier call. He knew early on that the ranching tradition to which he and his brothers had devoted their lives was doomed. He survived in it through hard work and great skill, but even so, had been in debt for fifty-five consecutive years and, at his death, still owned only four sections of land -- not enough, in an arid region, to make any rancher much of a living. He knew that ranching had ceased to be a viable profession for smallholders or, really, for large holders either. (Although he knew that many cattlemen even in the days of the open range had gone broke, I'm not sure he understood that the range cattle business had never really been a secure profession, at least not on the central plains, mainly because the cattlemen had brought the wrong animal -- English cattle -- to an arid grassland to which they were not well suited. South Texas cattlemen, raising Mexican longhorns that were well adapted to their environment, did, on the whole, much better.)


"Still, ranching was the only craft my father knew and his devotion to it was deep. It was not easy for him to live out a working life knowing that what he was working at would not survive him. It was, for him, tragic that the work he loved most -- the outdoor work with men and horses -- was not going to last beyond his time; the traditions it had bred would soon die with the work. It had only really lasted two generations, his father's and his own....


"Of the larger and much longer history of men and ruminants, the droving, herding, pastoral nomadism that lay behind cowboying -- centuries behind it -- he knew little. Yet the movement of men and animals over the earth is an old and powerful thing; its hold on my father and all the cowboys I've known was deep. At a second remove, through the movies, it has held millions who weren't cowboys. The seeming freedom of nomadism, the movement of men and herds over the plains of the world, under spacious skies, retains a strong attraction even now, for people who will never know it at close hand as my father and his companions knew it.


"There was no way and no reason for my father to escape the power of this tradition, since he was skilled enough even as a smallholder to survive within it. In an increasingly suburban world it was gratifying to him to feel that he could do his work with men and horses and answer to no man directly. But the fact of debt was always there: he escaped offices and time clocks, but not economics....


"Unfit for ranch work because of my indifference to cattle -- if sent to fetch a particular animal I usually came back with the wrong one -- 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). I couldn't find the right cow, but I could find the right books, extricating them from the once dense thickets of America's antiquarian bookshops.


"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."


What I like most about McMurtry is his ability to come down from those majestic passages to simple stories like the one with which he ends this book: "During a short break in a daylong effort, while back at my motel for a nap, I was informed that LONESOME DOVE had won the Pulitzer Prize. My informant was my agent, Irving Lazar, living up to his nickname, which was Swifty.


"I spoke for nearly eight hours that day. Though it was nice to hear about the prize, a nap would have been awfully nice too. But Irving persisted, determined to communicate to me the majesty of the event. When I finally got him off the line my next call was from the motel office: a reporter and photographer from the local paper were there to get a brief interview and take my picture.


"The night before, when I drove into Uvalde, the marquee of the Holiday Inn where I was staying had written on it: 'Welcome, Larry McMurtry, Author of Terms of Endearment.' That had never happened to me before, and it meant more than the vice presidency meant to John Nance Garner.


"But time waits for no author, not in Uvalde, anyway. As I walked up to meet the press I glanced at the marquee and saw that it had already been changed. Now it read: 'Lunch Special, Catfish: $3.95.' Even as Irving Lazar was telling me how great he had made me, my moment had passed. It was a lesson to be remembered. The Pulitzer Prize was well and good, but there was lunch to think of, and catfish at $3.95 was a bargain not to be scorned. The locals were already flocking to it, and as soon as the needs of the press had been satisfied, I went in and did the same."


All that I need to see on the spine of a book is that name, Larry McMurtry. I hope these excerpts from two of his less appreciated books show you why.-- Gerry Rising