Father Knows West
Larry McMurtry’s Berrybender quartet—now available in a single volume—is a strange attempt to set a sitcom amid the nineteenth-century American frontier.
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Larry McMurtry has been writing novels for five decades now, usually at a rapid clip. Even into his late sixties he continued to bang out an average of five pages a day, bringing forth, among numerous other works, a tetralogy known as The Berrybender Narratives, which began in 2002 with Sin Killer, followed in quick succession by The Wandering Hill, By Sorrow’s River, and Folly and Glory. McMurtry admits that he has “long been attracted to tetralogies,” citing Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet as a favorite. Of his own recent effort, he says, “I also liked my final tetralogy, the Berrybender Narratives, but I seem to share these last enthusiasms with very few.”
Indeed, the New York Times reviewer of By Sorrow’s River claimed that the series had “arrived, wheezing and a little exhausted, like the Berrybenders themselves, at its third volume.” Undaunted by such tepid reviews, Simon & Schuster has now brought out the whole lot in an omnibus edition that weighs in at 911 pages and costs $32.50. You can look at this two ways: as a stimulus package for the McMurtry industry or a blunt reminder about a series of books we might have overlooked when we were busy reading better things.
I have no problem with long novels or even series, as my affection for, among many other examples, Dreiser’s An American Tragedy and Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy would indicate. What I do have a problem with is boredom, and boredom is the essence of the Berrybender saga. Back in 1997, after McMurtry had completed Comanche Moon, a prequel to Lonesome Dove, he told a reporter, “I’m bored to death with the nineteenth-century West.” Perhaps he meant that he was bored with the post–Civil War West, because the Berrybender franchise found him happy to visit a historical period earlier in the century.
The key to McMurtry’s interest in this era lies in his 2001 essay “The American Epic.” Readers can save themselves a lot of trouble by reading that marvelous piece and its two companions, “Sacagawea’s Nickname” and “Old Misery” (all reprinted in the collection Sacagawea’s Nickname), rather than these books. For it is in these writings that one can clearly discern the inspiration for the Berrybender series: Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s famous journey into the American frontier.
The Berrybender books begin in 1832 and end in 1836, three decades after Lewis and Clark blazed their trail. But the duo’s presence is felt in many ways. Sacagawea’s husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, and their beloved son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, are characters in the novels, and several narrative incidents and landscape features are lifted straight from Lewis and Clark’s journals. Still, we’re very far removed from the world Lewis and Clark knew; by 1832 the beginning of the end of the West was already evident. The Missouri River, a “superhighway” to the West, was teeming with travelers new to that wild expanse. Steamboats were laying down their carbon footprints in a virgin wilderness, and the soot fell on the just and the unjust alike. Into this world of exploration (and its handmaiden, exploitation), McMurtry introduces an improbable cast: an ultra-eccentric English family, led by Lord Albany Berrybender, an old codger who likes to beget children and kill wild animals. Why? Because he can. His entourage includes a much-put-upon wife, 6 children, and 26 characters listed as “Staff.” As the novels progress, you need a flow chart to keep up with the deaths, births, and couplings that mark this improbable pursuit of glory undercut by the rankest folly.
Unwilling to attempt an epic on the order of the journals of Lewis and Clark, a work McMurtry considers one of the apexes of the American imagination, he instead opts for a much slighter form, mentioned in “The American Epic”: “As Captain Lewis first discerned with joy the dim outlines of the Rocky Mountains, we can, in the spacious flow of this narrative, discern the dim outlines of many genres to come: the domestic sitcom, for example.” The epic already having been written, all that is left for McMurtry to do is create a mock epic (on the order of Don Quixote) or revamp Father Knows Best. McMurtry chooses the latter. In a book about the wild, wild West, it is depressing how many chapters take place in a nursery: there’s an excess of mothers, milk, munchkins, munchies, and milquetoast males. Meanwhile, out on the prairie, the frontiersman Jim Snow performs heroic deeds and kills bad Injuns when he’s not spouting biblically inspired exfoliations of the Word. It’s as though McMurtry took the worst of James Fenimore Cooper and married it to the worst of Jane Austen.
Despite all the household drama, there’s a great deal of slaughter. Men, women, and children are carried off, tortured, mutilated, raped, and otherwise savaged by the Plains Indians. But life goes on, as it must in a sitcom, and couples reconfigure themselves in new alignments of passion and need. In the meantime Lord Berrybender keeps losing fingers and toes, but never his most important part, and so he proceeds unchecked on his voyage to the plains, to Santa Fe, to, unbelievably, Texas, and to, most unbelievably, the Alamo.
The saga also raises a question as to what degree of fidelity the historical novelist owes to history. McMurtry plays fast and loose with the facts. While it is true that the famous painter George Catlin went up the Missouri into the fabled West to paint Native Americans in 1832, he did not follow a crazy family to Texas in 1836. And while we can accept that Tasmin, the spunky heroine of the tale, based her ideas of the West on the novels of Cooper, she could not have also read Washington Irving’s writings on the West, as the novel states, because Irving’s A Tour of the Prairies was published in 1835, three years after Tasmin is reported having read it. Nor is it the case that Sam Houston was waiting on the “plain of San Jacinto” while the Texians were dying at the Alamo. But all of this fast and furious history is simply irrelevant to McMurtry’s larger purpose, which is to show that the discovery and settlement of the West very early on devolved into an absurd comedy of errors. The day the West was won, whenever that was, the West was lost.
In words that seem prophetic, McMurtry once wrote, “The narrative writing about the West that came before Lewis and Clark seems fragmentary and slight; what came after them seems insipid and slight, lacking both the scale and the force of those Journals.” Much of McMurtry’s writing over the past fifty years has been an honorable exception to that rule of thumb; in his best-known book, Lonesome Dove, he evoked the historical West with power and a sense of grand scope. But The Berrybender series is no Lonesome Dove. While its high page count rescues it from any accusations of slightness, “insipid” hits the mark all too well. All that’s missing is the laugh track.
What else we’re reading this month
The Innocent, Taylor Stevens (Crown, $24). Dallas thriller writer's globe-trotting sequel to her best-selling debut, The Informationist.
The Baker's Daughter, Sarah McCoy (Crown, $23). A novel of old secrets and new controversies, set in World War II–era Germany and twenty-first-century El Paso.
Three Messages and a Warning, Eduardo Jimenez Mayo and Chris N. Brown, Editors (Small Beer, $16). Contemporary Mexican short stories of horror and fantasy.