I feel ill-prepared to write about Larry McMurtry though of course I picked him for this project. It has been 20+ years since I read a bulk of McMurtry’s oeuvre, so why did I decide on him as a subject? Because not too long ago (within the past two years) I re-read Lonesome Dove and Streets of Laredo. I just looked over his bibliography on Wikipedia because I thought I would be able to write “the bulk of,” but there are so many books there and I only count around 15 or so that I’ve read. For someone who puts out a quality product, he is quite prolific. Or was – at 78 he is slowing down some.
Growing up in Miami, Florida, as a child I yearned to be anywhere else. This is probably not unusual. I also spent a lot of time watching westerns on TV, and wondering how close to reality they might be. I was a reader, and found my way to Max Brand, Zane Grey, and Louis L’Amour; enjoying all of them. By the time Lonesome Dove is published I am in college. I don’t know if someone pointed me towards it, or, I just picked it up in a bookstore on my own. It is grand, picaresque, lovely, funny, poignant, sad, hilarious, and contains characterizations that to me there is no superior to in literature (at least that I have read). Augustus McCrae is my hero, and the greatest character I have ever enjoyed reading about; and Woodrow Call is not half bad.
Many may have watched the TV mini-series starring Robert Duvall as McCrae and Tommy Lee Jones as Call. It is indeed great; but it’s not the book.
Others have mentioned books by authors where the reader arrives at the end and turns back to the beginning, reading the first 50 or so pages before putting it down with a sigh. Lonesome Dove is one of those books.
I went crazy a while back, thinking about having to write this, looking for a small line in LD that I thought wonderful. Eventually I found it in Streets of Laredo (sequel to LD). “The look on his face said more than Clara wanted to hear or see or know about one human missing another.” When I got to that line it was so well written, and said so much about characters who at this point you have known for the length of one long novel and then into another slightly shorter one, that I wanted to cry. Small jewels like these are sprinkled amongst McMurtry’s novels.
My OCD nature has me write notes after I read novels. I started with notecards several years ago, and now I have moved on to Goodreads. Here is something I wrote back when I re-read LD two years ago: “It is a masterpiece and a miracle of fiction that McMurtry is able to so fully realize a world full of people so true to life. Some of them are more real than people I have known for years.” Then, “Lonesome Dove is one of those books that you tell everyone to read and then are grumpy with them if they don’t have the same experience with it as you did.” Okay, I’ll stop writing about this one novel.
Stu likes Lonesome Dove so much that he bought me this copy from the college library's used book store. I did not make him grumpy. —Mac
Glancing back at his bibliography, it is fair to say that about half of his fiction are westerns in the sense of Louis L’Amour, etc. The other half are still westerns, but modern ones, taking place in Texas and elsewhere and probably in some ways representing McMurtry’s life as he might have lived it, as he idealized it after the fact, as he fictionalizes it and changes it for the reader. Much like so many other writers of fiction.
The eponymous protagonist of Cadillac Jack lives in Washington, D.C. buying antiques that he returns to his native Texas with. At one point in McMurtry’s life he also lived in D.C., but returned to Archer City, Texas with books instead, opening up huge bookstores in his small hometown near Wichita Falls that amounted to his enormous and ever-growing book collection. I have enjoyed many of these modern westerns too, in particular the “Houston” books which include Terms of Endearment. McMurtry has been fortunate with Hollywood, and also quite involved with the final product. Most people my age or older would have a hard time forgetting the heart-wrenching movie made from this book, or Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, and Jack Nicholson’s performances. I loved the book, and its sequel The Evening Star, but the ToE movie is more effective.
McMurtry has also written a reasonable number of non-fiction books, about highways, about books, about historical figures that may have made their way into his fiction, about his experience in Hollywood. He famously shared an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay with his sometime writing partner Diana Ossana for Brokeback Mountain.
Back to my childhood, Miami, Texas, and western movies. I eventually was able to leave Miami and spent some years in Texas and some other years in New Mexico. Parts of the Southwest are just as magical as McMurtry’s writing. Hiking in the wilderness, or even driving in the vast and empty areas of this region, not only do you remember the western movies and television shows of your youth, but also the writing about these areas that may have had a profound effect on you in your formative years. Larry McMurtry stands alone in American Literature in his accomplishment of being a narrator about his home state of Texas and the American Southwest.
—El Gaucho is a pseudonym of Stu Moore. Stu spends his time considering Registrar-related activities at a small liberal arts Jesuit college in the South, and how they might relate to his background in English and Theology.