So Pass By, Already
In Cadillac Jack, the best novel Larry McMurtry ever wrote, the eponymous Jack helps arrange a gallery show in Washington, D.C. It’s a boot show: 300 pairs of cowboy boots. The former footwear of Billy the Kid is the pièce de résistance, and although Jack, a scout from Texas who drives around the country looking for extraordinary objects, is a little embarrassed about the affair, he reasons it’s no less silly than the bread sculpture that previously occupied the space. At the end of the book, the glittering opening of the show is broadcast on television, with Dan Rather and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and skimpy hors d’oeuvres and other art-show types closing in on the unsuspecting boots. There are no cowboy feet in attendance, obviously. It’s just the boots.
Meanwhile, in Strange Peaches, the best novel Edwin Shrake ever wrote, his narrator, John Lee Wallace, comes home to Dallas in 1963 from Los Angeles, where he stars as a genuine sharp-shooting cowboy hero, Clive Riordan, in a television series called “Six Guns Across Texas.” John Lee, a former Hollywood Tarzan (he can’t do the yell; all the movies, he says, just have a tape of Johnny Weismuller thrown in), has a vague intention to shoot a film that will tell the truth about Texas, a sort of antidote to the crap peddled by television. “That’s a peculiar effort,” his friend Francis Franklin tells him, and as John Lee stumbles amiably around the city doped to the gills on speed and other fine recreational pleasures, he discovers he doesn’t have much idea what the truth actually is. He also finds that he confuses himself with Clive almost as much as everyone else does.
So did Shrake and McMurtry oversee a pair of ridiculous, rueful funerals for the cowboy, the West, and the legends thereof, and they oversaw the ceremonies with great grace and bravado, and in the funereal process wrote a pair of excellent novels. But they didn’t do a very good job with the burial.
Because the body wouldn’t stay buried. McMurtry and Shrake weren’t burying the cowboy himself, but his legend, and despite their efforts children continued to dress up as cowboys on Halloween, and mediocre movies starring the Marlboro Man, in his various incarnations, continued to arrive in theaters from Altoona to Altamonte. The Cowboy would not be killed, no matter how much actual cowboys wished he would die of lung cancer or fall off his fabulous damn horse. And so McMurtry and Shrake have stalked him. He doesn’t always put in an appearance in their books; but he’s always there.
McMurtry’s struggle with the Cowboy has been more copiously public than Shrake’s. McMurtry began his career with the elegiac Horseman, Pass By, a book about cowboys that included some actual cattle, and spent an amount of time and energy after that trying to correct the myth, to demystify it, and even to ignore it. (One measure of McMurtry’s pains in that last category is the number of pages he devoted to graduate students, indicating a depth of despair that should be wished on no writer no matter what his sins.)
But he couldn’t stay away, and four years after Jack, he went back almost all the way–if not to the beginning, then to the beginning of the end. That was Lonesome Dove, McMurtry’s epic attempt to strike at the myth, which backfired entirely. “I thought of Lonesome Dove as demythicizing,” he writes in Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, “but instead it became a kind of American Arthuriad… Readers don’t want to know and can’t be made to see how difficult and destructive life in the Old West really was.” This is surely true, but McMurtry had maybe a little too much fun with his cowboys Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call, who got away from him. He created more myth, as he notes, and a renewed romance with it: cowboys who were legend, brave and strong and baffled by women, profane and wise and dumb and very funny. Gus and Call got away from him so much that they, or someone with less pure intentions, compelled McMurtry to keep them alive for a few more novels.
In the 16 years since Lonesome Dove, McMurtry has published 10 novels, not counting his collaborations with Diana Ossana. Four of them have been set in the present. Each of these is a sequel, and each of them is probably inferior to its predecessor (or predecessors). Six are historical works–more Gus, more Call, but also Billy the Kid and others. (He has also published a pair of excellent sets of essays.) It is the past–the nineteenth century, mostly, the age in which the Cowboy and the legend of the West were made–that really seems to move him now. Now comes Boone’s Lick, the 11th (and his 27th book overall), a slight wagon-trail tale that comes equipped with brand new characters.
Only it doesn’t, really. McMurtry has made a habit of rehabilitating old characters, giving them their own books, or giving small places to characters who already got to be the star once, and it’s served him fairly well. Like a Balzac mostly interested in Houston and Archer City instead of Paris and Tours, he has created the impression of a rounded universe, where his Danny Decks and Duane Moores and Pea Eye Parkers and Jill Peels almost seem to have had whole lives, of which we’ve seen a small part. By floating them in and out of multiple books, McMurtry leads readers to believe that these people don’t end with the book; they’re just living, unaware that we may drop in on them in a few years.
Boone’s Lick has no Danny Deck and no Woodrow Call, but there are some familiar types here. The story is narrated by Shay Cecil, a teenager living with his family in Boone’s Lick, Missouri, not long after the Civil War. The Cecils set off to Wyoming to find Shay’s father, Dick, who is somewhere out there achieving manifest destiny and so forth. The family is made up of Uncle Seth, Dick’s brother, a gimpy graduate of the War who, despite having shot off his own kneecap by mistake, is a great sharpshooter, as well as an inventive and energetic talker; Mary Margaret Cecil, Seth’s mother, a force of nineteenth-century frontier womanhood; G.T., Shay’s cranky brother; Neva, his slightly mysterious sister; Granpa Crackenthorpe, who is grumpy; Mary Margaret’s beautiful half-sister, who is a prostitute; and a baby, in a small non-speaking part. They are joined, eventually, by a jocund French priest and a diffident Indian.
The novel mostly consists of the family’s trek west to find Dick Cecil, where he has been up to generally manly things: carving out the frontier, chopping wood, having children with various women. It includes some history–Wild Bill Hickok makes an appearance, as does Colonel Fetterman, who led his U.S. Army into a bloody slaughter by the Cheyenne and Sioux peoples. It includes as well some lively conversation, but it relies on Shay for its eyes, and this is too bad. Shay is a bland narrator and a bland observer. McMurtry tries to liven him up by giving him italics (“I wasn’t so sure I would be smarter the next time,” or “But, by looking close, I finally did see the ripple Charlie was talking about”) but it’s a poor substitute for a voice with any personality to speak of. Shay is a descendant of Lonnie, the voice of Horseman, Pass By, but McMurtry has given him none of the poetic license, or capacity, that he gave his first narrator.
Seth and Mary Margaret have more personality than Shay, but they suffer by comparison to other books in the McMurtry oeuvre. Seth is a tame Augustus McCrae–what Gus might have been if he had lost a leg as a young man and sat around for a decade or so pining after his beloved Clara instead of adventuring. And Mary Margaret is a little too much like Clara, if a Clara with a mission to settle accounts. Neva and G.T. don’t live and breathe much, just refer us to character types that McMurtry has done before and done better: Neva in particular, if only because McMurtry leads us to believe that she’s going to be iconoclastic and sassy and specific, the kind of girl he’s animated beautifully in the past, only to reduce her for the large part of the novel to a girl who never gets to do much of anything except call her brothers oafs.
McMurtry is coasting, and that too is a pity. Danny Deck, his novelist-turned-massively-successful-TV-writer, sometimes seems as if he could be a particularly unflattering self-portrait: the novelist with the dream of greatness who gave it up for less ambitious stuff, which made him rich and brought him fame but was not, and was somehow lesser than, what he had dreamed of. McMurtry, though, is no TV writer. He is not a great writer, but he is a wonderful comic storyteller. If he is not Proust, at least he is not Cormac McCarthy, or any writer whose ambition far outstrips his talent. McMurtry knows what he is good at, and he is great at it. But Boone’s Lick is not a great example of his talents. And it has no cowboys to speak of. Perhaps, in one form or another, he needs them.
Edwin Shrake’s The Borderland doesn’t have much in the way of cowboys either, really. But it does have Indians, a Texas Ranger, Mirabeau Lamar, and Sam Houston. It is set in 1839, in a three-year-old Texas, and Shrake’s project, the jacket copy informs me, is to tell “the tale of how mighty Texas was born.” It starts grandly, with a wonderful piece of writing that makes reading the rest of the book a great frustration. I spent the next 400 pages wondering where the writer who had written that first page had got to, and if he’d come back.
He doesn’t. The Borderland has to recommend it, above all, the fun Shrake has had naming characters, among them the Fighting Man, the Thin Man, the Thinking Man, and the Dark Man; Herman the German, Googleye, Horace Wapner, Velasco Chiltoskie, and Mr. Maurice. But there’s not much else.
Shrake’s subject may be the new Texas, the betrayal of the Comanches, the white man’s fascination with the uncivilized borderland and his simultaneous urge to push it farther and farther from him, or the birth of Austin, but the novel relies mostly on four characters: a fabled Ranger, Matthew Caldwell, known as Old Paint; his German-Jewish bride, Hannah Dahlman; Dr. Romulus Swift, half-Cherokee alumnus of Columbia University; and his 19-year-old sister, Cullasaja Swift, who is as impossibly beautiful as she is impossibly good. There’s a villain as well, Henry Longfellow, a misogynist’s misogynist who first tries to rape Cullasaja and then Hannah and generally lurks around being as evil as he possibly can be. Caldwell is an old hero who wants to settle into domestic bliss. Dr. Swift is a mystic intellectual who can heal the unhealable, a scientist par excellence, a boxing champion who breaks the famous Ranger’s jaw (though it is nobly done), and a man who spends much of his time plotting how to find a Bigfoot creature that apparently hasn’t heard civilization is coming. Hannah is brave and intelligent. Cullasaja is brave and intelligent. Texas in 1839 does not appear have had much room for complexity or originality of character.
Shrake throws in some romantic confusion–Will Romulus and Hannah break Old Paint’s heart? Do the old hero and Cullasaja dare cross the border that separates them?–and there is the glimmer here of something really affecting. But Shrake, whose talent for dialogue in Strange Peaches was a preternatural phenomenon, manages to make everyone in this book sound like cardboard. They have two pitches: clichéd frontier-speak (“Doctor Swift, don’t make me whip you like a dog”) and stilted, I-live-in-the-nineteenth-century-and-am-educated-speak (“Rommy, I have strong feelings for that man. Could I be falling in love with him?”)
The Borderland is a great disappointment, especially compared to some of Shrake’s earlier work. It has none of his old wit, or timing, or rhythm, or enormous absurd comic sense. It’s almost as if the writing of an epic historical novel became such a serious task that Shrake forgot to write about living people. Franklin, Dorothy, Big Earl, Erwin Englethorpe and the rest of the cast from Strange Peaches are all variously cracked versions of humanity, but they’re profoundly alive. The weight of history, and of legend and myth, seems to have killed off the people of The Borderland before any outlaws or Indians or American soldiers even had a chance.
The legend Shrake and McMurtry once busied themselves burying has drawn them back to dust off the bones, and neither of them has done his best work with the old myths. Shrake in particular seems paralyzed by it. McMurtry manages an ease with voice and dialogue whether he’s writing about the 1860s or the 1970s, but it’s too easy for him, and his books run the risk of becoming indistinguishable. Cadillac Jack is set mostly in Washington, D.C., and Strange Peaches is more concerned with Jack Ruby than with the Marlboro Man, but there is a wildness and boldness, an originality and a verve in each of those books that puts these historical tales of the West to shame. The myth is too solidly entrenched for McMurtry and Shrake to shake it too much, perhaps. It is its shadow they can best take hold of, while its substance defeats them.
Dan Halpern has written about books for magazines and newspapers including The New Yorker, The New Republic Online, and The National Post.