By his own account, Larry McMurtry is a lucky hack. Though he is one of only three Texans to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (after Allen Drury and Katherine Anne Porter), the best he can say about the 1986 novel that earned him the honor is that “I don’t dislike Lonesome Dove.” He expresses downright disgust over much of the rest of his prose and confesses that he dashed off All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers (1972) in five weeks and Desert Rose (1983) in 22 days. McMurtry deems Duane’s Depressed (1999) his best novel, but he judges himself more successful as a collector than a creator of books: “I consider the formation of my large library, now swelling past thirty thousand volumes and filling three houses, one a very large house at that, to be an achievement equal to if not better than my writings themselves.”
That achievement is described in Books, the 2008 memoir that recounts McMurtry’s experiences as a reader, collector and merchant of bound, printed texts. His ambition to transform his home base, Archer City (“Simply put, it’s not a nice town”), into a Lone Star Hay-on-Wye, a reader’s Eden, has not been fulfilled, but the stock in his sprawling bookstores there exceeds the county’s human and bovine populations combined. McMurtry is fond of literary sequences—he followed Duane Moore, Danny Deck, Woodrow Call, Aurora Greenway and the Berrybender clan through several volumes each. Literary Life, a sequel to Books, is the second installment in an autobiographical trilogy that McMurtry promises will conclude with Hollywood, covering his experiences as screenwriter and adapted novelist. His identities as book collector, novelist, and screenwriter overlap, and Literary Life repeats some of what is said in Books.
McMurtry, who grew up in a bookless household, discovered literature as an undergraduate at Rice. He credits professors at North Texas State, where he transferred after dropping out of Rice, with inspiring his literary career. A classmate and rival of Ken Kesey in Wallace Stegner’s writing program at Stanford in 1960, he published his first novel, Horseman, Pass By, a year later, “when it was relatively easy to publish first novels.”
Ascribing a larger role to happenstance than talent, he notes that, “Twenty-five years later, by chance, I won a Pulitzer Prize for Lonesome Dove.” Like The Last Picture Show and Terms of Endearment, both Lonesome Dove and Horseman, Pass By (as Hud) were fortunate in screen adaptation. McMurtry speculates that the popularity of cinema rather than his own literary achievement (“I was a midlist novelist who had gotten lucky with the movies, that’s all.”) led to his election in 1989 as president of PEN American Center, where he served two terms, “accomplishing naught.” The persistance of McMurtry’s modesty verges on self-abuse. “Little of my work in fiction is pedestrian,” says the author of 29 novels, “but, on the other hand, none of it is really great.”
Despite pungent anecdotes about Grover Lewis’ mendacity, George Garrett’s philandering and Susan Sontag’s vanity, Literary Life offers scant support for McMurtry’s notion that his nonfiction, especially the 1999 rumination Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, will outlive his fiction. He reports that Michael Korda, his editor for more than 40 years, “eschews line editing.” Would that both author and editor had toiled more carefully on this manuscript, which is fraught with misstatements, non sequiturs and other infelicities.
Though it affects a casual air, this is a published book, and a reader deserves better than the offhand remark that one of McMurtry’s teachers “left for the University of Illinois, where he eventually became chancellor of, I believe, the whole state system.” He could have checked and found that presidents, not chancellors, head the system. Noting that Korda keeps horses on his Dutchess County estate, McMurtry writes, “The horses are for his second wife, Margaret, who, like President Obama, has spent some time in Kenya.” If she had also spent “some time” in Paris, would he have noted that President Jefferson had as well? McMurtry proclaims, without specifying the measure, that Houston “remains, by a large measure, the most interesting city in Texas.” Mentioning a heart attack, he writes, “I became a different person,” before abruptly changing the subject. Exploring that difference is where memoirs should begin.
Contributing writer Steven G. Kellman teaches at the University of Texas at San Antonio and edited M.E. Ravage’s 1917 memoir, An American in the Making.