This week’s guest post comes to us from Tyler Allard: Princeton alum, good pal, and voted Most Likely to Become President in our high school (Spoiler: He has not yet been president). I swear I’ll be back in the reviewing saddle once
I finish binge-watching all nine seasons of One Tree Hill my life calms down.
So….I have a literary man-crush on Larry McMurtry.
Perhaps I should back up a bit.
As a Washingtonian, I am drawn to works that exude a sense of place. After all, having grown up in a region that thinks of itself as a mélange of all the types and regional personalities that make up American culture (and whose local celebrities include members of Congress who — by their very job descriptions — are conceptualized as representing certain places), I am fascinated by the romantic notion that places have auras that can be embodied or captured. And what American place hovers more strongly in the American imagination than Texas?
Which brings me back to Larry McMurtry. To my mind, Larry McMurtry is Mr. Texas. A native of dusty little Archer City, no one writes about Texas better. Nobody captures Texas better. If you’re looking for something quintessentially Texas, Larry McMurtry is your guide, the pleasure in reading him augmented by the fact that his expertise is so genuine and effortless that he need not buttress his prose with unnecessary frippery. He’s not a plopped-down coastal arriviste, so he doesn’t need to put on a he-man cowboy act to prove his Texas bona fides. Rather, he can write with a beautifully unforced style as he so clearly knows his own terrain.
Substantively, McMurtry’s work grapples with the emotional inheritance of the Texas plains. McMurtry’s grandparents could remember Texas as a genuine frontier. His parents (and extended aunts and uncles) worked the land, seemingly the last generation that could eke out a meager but viable living from cattle ranching. McMurtry, for his part, came of age at a time when this hardscrabble way of life was increasingly unfeasible. As such, in McMurtry’s world small towns are declining and their people restless, modern Westerners weighed down by the burdening memory of a bygone, sturdier past.
McMurtry’s fantastic essay collection from 1968 about Texas, In a Narrow Grave, was originally going to be called “The Cowboy in the Suburb” specifically to highlight this notion that the prairie was giving way to the strip mall, the plains with their lonesome magic yielding to a mundane mid-century. Such themes also pervade The Last Picture Show and Horseman, Pass By, two early novels that both got turned into movies. (It says something about the man that his earliest works are elegies). Truth be told — and McMurtry might tell you himself, no-frills plainsman that he is — the movies might be better uses of your time. They get the point across in elegant black and white. What’s more, McMurtry would tap this seam even more resonantly in later work.
(Disclaimer: No doubt, the McMurtry must-read is Lonesome Dove, his epic,Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece. Alas, I still have yet to read it; 800+ pages is daunting, even to the biggest fan.)
At the other end of his career, the later Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen is a thoughtful personal rumination on turning 60 and assessing his life’s work. A beautiful, spare memoir, a gently sentimental lament, it may be my favorite McMurtry work. The breezier, younger McMurtry has ripened and deepened. Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen is restrained yet rich, the poignant recollections of a somber old cowboy, leathery yet sentimental. In tone and power it’s akin to Johnny Cash’s version of “Streets of Laredo”, an understated lament for a passing way of life that packs an emotional wallop.