FEATURE Perspectives on McMurtryville A Memoir by Archer City ‘s Flaubert BY DON GRAHAM WALTER BENJAMIN AT THE DAIRY QUEEN: Reflections at Sixty and Beyond. By Larry McMurtry. Simon & Schuster. 204 pages. $21.00. 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 Ben jamin 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 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 ature? 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 veyed legal acreage that would rel th e :s’e CliSen anchigettent of P easa:tur knpw that they were not shiftlesS’peop:\(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 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 a place of unpeop ed horizons. One of the things I have been doina, 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 From Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, by Larry McMurtry. JULY 23, 1999 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 5
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