A couple of months ago I attended one of those ghastly book awards banquets put on by the University of Texas, where it was my misfortune to be seated opposite a librarian who was either a fake Brit or a real one, I hadn’t the ear to tell. Real Brit or no, he certainly qualified as a snob of the sort one reliably runs into in academic circles. Looking over the list of book entries, his eye fell upon the title of my book and he asked in that mincing way that ought to set off alarms but often doesn’t because I am not paying attention, “And your book, what is it about if I may ask?”
“Well,” I said, “it’s about Texas literature, Texas film, Texas culture.”
“Texas culture?” he sniffed. “I should think that’s an oxymoron.”
You’re the fuckin’ moron, I thought, but I didn’t say it. Perhaps the librarian will happen to pick up Larry McMurtry’s Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, which has a lot of brilliant things to say about books and … Texas culture. McMurtry’s title might just fetch an academic, Walter Benjamin being one of the darlings of recent theorizing. Those-in-the-know know that the critic’s last name, pronounced properly, rhymes with “queen,” but I dare say that the average bubba (or TV anchor) has never heard of Walter Benjamin. I love the title, and so must McMurtry. Years ago a longish essay of the same title, in typescript, was sold at auction, and at the time I thought, how fun it would be to read McMurtry on Dairy Queens. He has kept the title and expanded that original essay of some eighty-odd pages into a book that is part essay, part memoir, and part meditation on topics close to the author’s heart — including the author’s actual heart, some compelling testimony on the effects of bypass surgery on one’s core personality. This is a book that belongs on the shelf with McMurtry’s great 1968 assessment of Texas culture, In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas. The two works form thoughtful book-ends to a career of important fiction writing ranging across four decades.
In the earlier collection, McMurtry assessed everything from Texas cities (with Houston a clear favorite) to Southwestern Literature? with the telltale question mark, to an anatomy of dirty words in Archer County. It was an exhilarating work full of insight and wit, and its closing essay, “Take My Saddle from the Wall: A Valediction,” remains one of the author’s best pieces of writing. In that essay he placed the lives of his extended ranching family against a backdrop of myth and legend surrounding the figure of the cowboy. The new book amplifies in some respects the personal, familial, and symbolic material of “Take My Saddle from the Wall,” but does not excoriate his home town and the region the way he did in “Eros in Archer County” or The Last Picture Show.
The enfant terrible has mellowed, but not too much. He can still dispatch zingers and funny bits of dead-on commentary about the place he has loved and hated and where he currently resides. McMurtry’s career has consisted, in a way, of filling up empty space — populating in his fiction the sparsely inhabited country of his youth — and filling up the town itself with what he most loves: books. In In a Narrow Grave, he memorably remarked that he had grown up in a bookless town in a bookless part of the state. Of late he has made it his mission to correct that situation by moving his bookstore operation to Archer City. As he states so eloquently near the end of Walter Benjamin, “I still believe that books are the fuel of genius. Leaving a million or so in Archer City is as good a legacy as I can think of for that region and indeed for the West.”
The new book begins with McMurtry recounting his visit to the local Dairy Queen in 1980, where, nursing a lime Dr Pepper (a speciality known only to that DQ) and musing upon the speculations of Walter Benjamin’s book Illuminations, he found himself engrossed in one essay in particular, “The Storyteller.” Benjamin’s essay, which appeared the year of McMurtry’s birth, lamented the passing of the oral tradition. Many reasons — the cheapening of experience, for one thing, occasioned most brutally by the devaluation of human life in World War I, and the rise of the means of mass-producing cheap homogenous cultural objects, along with the new media, radio and cinema — all spelled the end of the tradition of storytelling. In 1980 in the Dairy Queen, McMurtry can find no evidence at all that any village oral tradition exists. But he can remember his childhood when people still told stories of a summer evening, on the front porch, or in winter, round the stove. He came along just at the end of the storytelling tradition and at the end of the era of the American folk hero, the cowboy — though in a sense the last cowboy would not die until his father died in 1976. (McMurtry’s father haunts this narrative, and as remembered by his son, is a very moving figure.) Not surprisingly, McMurtry sees the influence of modern media as a significant factor in the death of storytelling. Once, he writes, “there was no media — now, it seems, there’s no life.”
Benjamin, an observer of Europe in all its density and complexity, lived in a world completely different from that of the young McMurtry. “The European writers could no more escape culture than I could escape geography,” writes McMurtry, sounding a bit like Henry James out west, if one can imagine that. Land, sky, weather, and outdoor work, in short the frontier, defined McMurtry’s early life. He believes himself “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….”
From his childhood McMurtry recalls two powerful images of women confronting the silence and solitude of the frontier. One is a woman whom he saw but who never spoke. As a girl she had been swapped to a trapper for skunk hides, and in the years to follow she bore him numerous children and ceased to speak. The other woman was McMurtry’s own paternal grandmother who, during the first eight years of his life when she lived with his parents, never spoke a syllable to her grandson the future writer. What she did do, however, the year before the grandson’s birth, was to slap the cheek of the young bride, her daughter-in-law, a blow that would reverberate for the next forty years of the McMurtry marriage. McMurtry’s revelation of his parents’ unresolved conflict over that event marks a departure from his usual reticence about his own family’s private life. McMurtry finds it interesting that “the seriousness of that slap in the lives of my parents is suggested only by an absence of slaps in my fiction.”
In his essay qua narrative, McMurtry keeps returning to 1980, the summer of Archer City’s centennial, of forty-two days of triple digit heat, of the cosmopolitan European Benjamin being read and reread in the Dairy Queen by the native son who always found Europe more interesting than America. Ever the wry observer of his county’s history and behavior, McMurtry concludes that nothing had ever happened in the county worth remembering, and that there was no one to remember it anyway. Still, he says, he enjoyed the historical pageant mounted by a professional county historical pageant director — from Brooklyn, no less — and translated it into farce in Texasville.
That summer also, it appears, marked a kind of crisis in McMurtry’s calling: “I was, as a novelist, mired in the Slough of Despond. I hadn’t liked a word of my most recent novel, Somebody’s Darling, and I wasn’t, so far, liking a word of my next, Cadillac Jack.” Lonesome Dove cured his novelistic malaise, and Lonesome Dove, he says, came right out of the time of his grandfather and uncles, the trail-driving era that his father longed to have taken part in and which he spent an entire life trying to recuperate through the idealized vocation of cowboying. It was left to the rancher’s son, a kind of “book rancher” (in his guise of book buyer and seller) and herder of words (in his guise as novelist) to try to demythicize the legendary West but in the process to find, to his astonishment, that books like Lonesome Dove were cherished instead as upholders of the myths of cowboy puissance and freedom.
Early on, McMurtry knew he was going to be a reader instead of a rider. Many pages in Walter Benjamin are devoted to reconstructing the ways in which books took over his life. A lifetime of reading is recounted with precision and joy, but that passion was unexpectedly put on hold following quadruple-bypass surgery in late 1991. After that event, McMurtry resumed his life “as someone else,” and for two and a half years the new someone was unable to read. The recovery of the delight in reading is one of the personal triumphs in the book.
On the subject of reading McMurtry is consistently interesting. He quit reading fiction around the age of thirty and today prefers reading biographies of writers to the works of the writers themselves. (I have several friends of whom this is also true.) The fiction writers he values the most are Proust and Virginia Woolf. With the exception of Faulkner, Americans count for very little in his literary pantheon and Texas writers not at all. Typical is this remark, “The American West has so far produced depressingly little in the way of literature.”
In a curious way McMurtry the author seems as isolated and as solitary as the mute figure of the cowboy or the woman traded for a batch of skunk hides. As if in recognition of this fact, he cites his friend Susan Sontag’s funny observation that McMurtry seemed to be living in his own theme park. His book is silent on many aspects of his education. He speaks of Rice and of one professor there as formative in providing a model of what civilized reading could mean, but of North Texas State College, where he spent three important undergraduate years, he has very little to say and nothing at all to say about his professors there, or friends like Grover Lewis, an intellectual who went on to become a hip Rolling Stone journalist. Of the women in his life, he makes only this provocative statement: “Of mother, wives, lady loves, and amitiés amoureuses — well, that’s another book.”
The sheer audacity of McMurtry’s accomplishment emerges from this book without any self-congratulation on the author’s part. He literally started from scratch, a phrase he uses to describe his sense of that frontier emptiness upon first moving to the Eastern seaboard. Like many a displaced Texan, he felt the frontier, the geography of space, by its absence. Now it might be said that he resides in a place called “McMurtryville,” where he continues to fill up the vacant landscape with books, those he purchases and those he writes, including among the latter within just the past twelve months a novel, a biography, and a memoir.
The last time I saw Larry was at a rental car check-in bureau at the Dallas–Fort Worth Airport. This was in 1996. He had his typewriter with him. He was on his way back to Archer City, I supposed, and I was on my way back to Europe, having flown in a few days earlier to attend to details concerning the death of my mother, and just a few hours beforehand, having seen her remains laid to rest beside those of my father, in a very modern cemetery carved out of the blackland prairie of Collin County. For me it was the end of an era, and seeing Texas’ foremost elegist of changing times was somehow appropriate. I hadn’t anything of McMurtry’s with me to read on the plane, but Flaubert would do. What Flaubert says of the little village of Yonville might be said of all the little towns of which McMurtry is our most salient observer: “There is nothing further to see in Yonville. The street, the only one, about a gunshot in length, with a few shops on each side, stops short at the bend in the road. If you turn right and follow the foot of the Côte Saint-Jean, you soon reach the cemetery.”
Don Graham’s most recent book is Giant Country: Essays on Texas. A novel, French Resistance, co-authored with his wife Betsy Berry, is forthcoming from Boaz.
he 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.
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).
– From Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, by Larry McMurtry.