Farewell to Larry McMurtry, a true man of letters and a giant in the field of Texas and western literature.
From his first novel, Horseman, Pass By (re-titled “Hud” for the movie, uh, variation) to the legendary Lonesome Dove tales (both the novels and the mini-series, to his latter-day non-fiction like Books: A Memoir, to his final novel, The Last Kind Words Saloon, he proved the consummate chronicler of the Texas experience, from days of old to modern times.
I first heard of Larry McMurtry from the briefest of cameo scenes in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Test. McMurtry had studied writing at Stanford with Ken Kesey, so as Kesey & the Merry Pranksters drove legendary bus across the country, they stopped in Houston to drop in on Ken’s old friend. It’s a memorable little anecdote, but Larry McMurtry is but a passing name in that book. Living in Houston as I did, of course, that anecdote sparked my interest in this writer.
I think I started reading his books after seeing the movie The Last Picture Show. Here was a true tale of the Texas I knew of, right when my interest in writers and especially Texas writers was awakening. It was short work back then to read all of McMurtry’s books — he’d only written 3 novels. After I gobbled those down, I read In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas which deepened my appreciation for his ability to write about true Texas experiences with wry insight and dry humor.
When All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers came out my senior year in high school, my early crush felt consummated. His story of budding author Danny Deck’s journey from Houston to Hollywood with stops in Austin and the highways of the west along the way, resonated perfectly with me. By the time he described how Hollywood distorted Danny’s book to make it into a movie, I realized what he’d must have been through when they made Hud.
The movies made from McMurtry’s books were generally frustrating. From changing the central point of view in Horseman, Pass By to older brother, Hud, to making the black maid white — the re-writing of what Hollywood considered minor points — impacted the story deeply, changing it immensely. In some ways, it’s still the same story and in oh so many ways, it simply is not. Then they further mutilated Leaving Cheyenne with a movie called Lovin’ Molly. In a June 2014 interview, McMurtry commented:
It was badly cast, badly costumed, badly located. My father was horrified because they dressed the cowboys in bib overalls.
The movie version of Last Picture Show definitely improved on prior attempts in terms of fidelity to tone and plot and characters. Meanwhile, he went on to write screenplays and cultivated a rich enough body of work to yield what many people will remember him for most, Lonesome Dove — the mini-series, not the book. I suspect only a fraction of the viewers read the source material.
I tend to prefer McMurtry’s contemporary tales over the tales of old Texas. He himself has said that he intended Lonesome Dove as an anti-Western, as he thought most people hold far too romanticized a vision of the Old West. When asked in an interview if he had succeeded in defeating the myths of the Western, he said, “Obviously not.”
He came to speak at UT my freshman year. After all the anticipation and excitement, I mainly remember 3 main things from the talk.
1) He wrote The Last Picture Show in 6 weeks.
2) In answer to a question comparing the length of that book and Movin’ On, a tome of great volume, he was mildly dismissive, remarking he was not one of those writers who felt every word had to be precious. If he spent a dozen pages wandering around a scene or passage, that didn’t bother him.
3) And I asked what was, from this distant vantage point, an admittedly, stupid question. At the end of All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers, Danny Deck eats some magic mushrooms, something I enjoyed doing as well, so I asked about its significance. Larry pointed out that was a minor detail and really had didn’t have much to do with, well, anything. If he was mildly dismissive of the question about long books, he seemed openly annoyed at my question and I sat down, feeling pointedly pointed out as a stupid stoner.
More recently, my favorite set of McMurtry’s books were the three books featuring Duane Moore, first introduced in The Last Picture Show. Yes, there was an interim novel, Texasville, extrapolating most of the same cast of characters, and they separately recur in other books. But I hated Texasville. I will re-read it since I have a copy, but I see that as separate from both the start and the closing three-part closer of the saga, Duane’s Depressed, When the Light Goes, and Rhino Ranch.
So, I’ll be returning to Texas once again in my mind with Larry McMurtry as my guide as I start rereading some of my old favorites. I can’t wait until Duane parks his truck and starts walking everywhere.