Not Moving On

Despite his past statements to the contrary, Larry McMurtry is still writing fiction. And I, for one, am glad.

May 2003By Comments

SINCE LARRY MCMURTRY ANNOUNCED THAT he was through writing novels fifteen years ago, he has written no fewer than twelve of them. The latest, The Wandering Hill, is due from Simon and Schuster this month. Book two of the Berrybender Narratives (the first volume, Sin Killer, was published a year ago, to mixed reviews), it continues the American adventures of an eccentric English family. Fans of vintage McMurtry can look forward to the reissue this summer of three Houston-based novels: Terms of Endearment, The Evening Star, and one of my personal favorites, Moving On.

According to a recent interview in the Los Angeles Times, McMurtry has already completed the third and fourth volumes of the Berrybender tetralogy. He writes fast. Beginning at seven-thirty in the morning and finishing an hour and a half later, he bangs out ten pages daily on a Hermes 3000 manual typewriter. During the revision stage, he ups the output to twenty pages. Working at this pace, he can complete a book in three months. During the rest of an average workday, McMurtry looks after business at “book town,” his name for the enterprises formally known as Booked Up that he operates in the heart of Archer City—his hometown and the place he was talking about when he wrote in an early essay that he had grown up in a “bookless town, in a bookless part of the state.”

McMurtry’s mission in life, or one of them, is to fill Archer City with books. He has 21,000 of them in his own home, on shelves in nearly every room of the three-story mansion that was once the town’s country club (one room contains only books about rivers). His job at book town is buying and pricing and selling books. Books are his lifeblood. “If I haven’t bought anything in three weeks, I feel very thinned out. Very thinned out,” he told an interviewer. Recently, he wrote me that he currently has a quarter of a million books under his “control.”

At age 66 (he will turn 67 on June 3), McMurtry has been the reigning King of Texas Literature for more than four decades. That is a long time to dominate a literary scene, but McMurtry has done it by dint of brilliance, talent, hard work, and rock-solid discipline. His father, about whom he has written beautifully, was a sunup-to-sundown old-time rancher, and McMurtry has inherited his father’s work ethic in spades. It is one of the many things I admire about him.

Much of mythic Texas is a wholly owned subsidiary of Larry McMurtry’s imagination. Small towns, the epic cattle-drive era, the dying days of cowboy country—these are some of the themes so etched in Texas memory that one cannot think or write about them without invoking McMurtry. He is like a great Lincoln Town Car sweeping down the back roads of our collective consciousness.

The first phase of McMurtry’s career runs from 1961 through 1970, a period during which he published three novels set in or near the fictitious little West Texas town of Thalia (Archer City): Horseman, Pass By; Leaving Cheyenne; and The Last Picture Show. He had to rewrite the hell out of the first one because (a) he was unknown and (b) the editor said so. I dare say that since then he has written roughshod over editors, or to change the metaphor, they have stood admiringly on the sidewalk watching as he rode into Dodge (the offices of Simon and Schuster) with another saddlebag full of ready-to-print novels. The first phase also included the eloquent In a Narrow Grave, McMurtry’s meditation on Texas culture.

Phase II began in 1972 with his wild, funny, and moving road novel, All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers, and included Terms of Endearment, a work that he is on record as rating highly (McMurtry is a stern, even puritanical, judge of his own work), and the capstone, 1985’s Lonesome Dove, which just about everybody agrees is the best Western ever penned and which novelist and UCLA professor Carolyn See says should replace Moby Dick in American Lit classrooms. (I know hundreds of students who would rally around that banner.) McMurtry regards this phase as the central one in his novelistic career because (a) he likes the work during this period and (b) it fits his chronological theory of creativity: apprenticeship, mastery, and decline.

Phase III—post-Lonesome Dove—is where we are now. Since 1985 McMurtry has published three novels deploying the cast of characters from Lonesome Dove, seven sequels to earlier novels, and counting The Wandering Hill, five Western novels set outside the boundaries of the Lone Star State. Lest anyone buy too strongly into the decline thesis, phase III has also seen the publication of one of his most moving novels, Duane’s Depressed, and two memoirs of great distinction, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen and Paradise.

In his introduction to Sacagawea’s Nickname, a brilliant collection of essays published in 2001, McMurtry states, “The West, to me, was always a place to look at, and I have looked at most of it many times, becoming, in the process, a kind of connoisseur of western skies, whose space and sweep still move me.

“What I never wanted to do, in regard to the West, was read about it.”

But he must want us to read about it, because his own books about the West continue to march forth, a grand procession of titles and topics. Much as McMurtry has been trying to fill Archer City with books, so he has been single-handedly trying to fill the literary emptiness of Western American literature with novels of his own devising.

The new tetralogy deals with the exploration of the American West in the aftermath of Lewis and Clark’s fabulous trek, which opened up the country for the American push ever farther west toward the Pacific Ocean and south toward Mexico. The action in The Wandering Hill picks up where Sin Killer left off, with the massive Berrybender entourage encamped where the Missouri River meets the Yellowstone. Stuffed with characters, the novel gives us 22 carried over from Sin Killer, including the high-spirited heroine, Tasmin Berrybender, and her laconic frontiersman husband, Jim Snow, or Sin Killer (so called because he is a dauntless Indian fighter); nine mountain men of historical provenance, among them Hugh Glass, Jim Bridger, and Kit Carson; eight new characters, including Pomp Charbonneau, the son of Sacagawea, everybody’s favorite Indian; and a whole bunch of colorful Native Americans. For all the large cast, however, there is not a great deal of action. Much of the novel is propelled by dialogue, and one of the themes is women’s chatter versus men’s silences. Tasmin’s pregnancy, delivery, and nursing of her baby, for example, are the subject of pages and pages of discourse on the “madonnas of the Missouri.”

The Wandering Hill exhibits McMurtry’s usual feel for the vast skies and spaces of the American West, though most of such sightings are from the protection of a fort or an encampment. The West in 1833, it seems, was already crowded with Europeans bent on killing, trapping, or painting the vanishing paradise of wild animals and wild Indians. Two of the greatest painters of the American West are brought into the action of the novel: George Catlin and Karl Bodmer, whose canvases are still the best visual record we have of the pre-photography world that began to be lost as soon as it was found.

It is clear that the novel has been quarried from the journals of Lewis and Clark, one of McMurtry’s favorite travel narratives, which he proclaimed an “American epic” in an essay. Many details from the novel derive directly from incidents and even turns of phrase recorded in Lewis and Clark. “The battery of Venus,” for example, an elaborate euphemism for a woman’s private parts, appears in a description by Captain Clark of the bark clothing worn by Wahkaikum women. Even the mysterious hill in the novel, a site of ominous magic and mystery in Indian superstition, has its origins in one passage of the journals.

McMurtry’s re-creation of the West seems to flow from his observation about Lewis and Clark’s fabled journey: “As the trek goes on, the West comes to seem less a place of wild savagery than a place of wild zaniness.” Indeed, the whole farcical tone of much of the novel may be found in the actual events recorded by Lewis and Clark. Captain Clark, for example, was wounded in the leg when a Frenchman, mistaking him for an elk, shot him.

Near the novel’s end, Tasmin Berrybender Snow wonders if her family’s long, seemingly endless journey will take them, finally, to Texas or Piccadilly. Advance word tells us to expect Texas. The fourth volume is said to end at the Alamo, and it will be nice to have McMurtry back on the solid soil of Texas, from which his best work has always sprung.

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