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The Minor Regional Novelist

When Larry McMurtry began writing, he had no reason to believe that the dusty plains and grim ranchers that inspired him would capture anyone’s attention. Thirty-two novels, a Pulitzer, and an Oscar later, there’s no question that the eighty-year-old author of Lonesome Dove has done more to shape the country’s understanding of Texas than anyone before or since. 

By July 2016Comments

Photograph by LeAnn Mueller

When Larry McMurtry is not in Archer City, the one-stoplight town in North Texas where he was raised, he can often be found in Tucson, Arizona, in a single-story, flat-roofed home in the immaculate neighborhood of Oracle Foothills Estates. He was there one morning this spring, standing at the glass-plated front door, dressed in a white collared shirt, black athletic pants, and blue New Balance athletic shoes. A red sweater he’d pulled over his shirt sported a couple of holes. His hair, once tousled and black, was now tousled and completely white. His handshake was soft. “Well, here you are,” he said matter-of-factly.

Behind him, six dogs—five small, one large—raced to the entryway, a cacophonous committee of barking and sniffing and frantic circles. “You will find this to be a house of many creatures,” McMurtry said as he led me down a short hallway toward a bedroom, where a large black bunny sat in a hutch next to the bed, chewing contentedly. “Behold, Diana’s rabbit,” he said. “Her name is Beauty, because apparently Diana believes she is beautiful.”

Beauty’s owner—also, incidentally, the owner of the six dogs—is Diana Ossana, McMurtry’s longtime friend and writing partner. The house, a cozy and cluttered home full of books and photos, is hers too. McMurtry, who turned eighty last month, has lived there off and on since 1991; in 2011, after he married Faye Kesey, the widow of novelist Ken Kesey, she moved in as well.

McMurtry turned around and shuffled us to the other end of the hallway, to his and Faye’s bedroom. The room held a queen-size bed, draped in a white comforter and flanked on either side by bedside tables, on whose surfaces sat vitamin bottles and medications. There was also a sofa, a small desk with a computer for Faye, and a large wooden table for McMurtry. On the table was a stack of typing paper, some manila folders containing manuscripts, a clock, a bottle of Advil, a box of tissues, and McMurtry’s Hermes 3000 manual typewriter.

“Your bedroom is also your office?” I asked.

“It’s all I need,” he said, lowering himself slowly onto the sofa.

“And obviously, there’s no truth to the rumors that you’ve retired?” I asked, pointing to the manuscripts on the table.

“Retire?” said McMurtry, and he shrugged. “Who knows? I might have one more novel left in me.”

McMurtry’s manual typewriter, a Hermes 3000.
McMurtry’s manual typewriter, a Hermes 3000.

Photograph by LeAnn Mueller

For more than fifty years, he has been writing novels—thirty in all, the plots ranging from Old West adventures to small-town comedies to contemporary domestic dramas. He has co-written two other novels and published fourteen books of nonfiction—short memoirs, collections of essays, a travel book, and even biographies of such frontier figures as Crazy Horse—as well as reams of book reviews and essays. He has written or co-written more than forty teleplays and screenplays. As if that were not enough, he has also found time to carry on a fulfilling side profession as a “bookman,” as he likes to call himself, traveling around the country to hunt for rare books and overseeing a huge antiquarian bookstore that he opened in Archer City in the eighties.

In American letters, he is something of an icon—winner of both a Pulitzer Prize (for the novel Lonesome Dove, about a cattle drive in the 1870s) and an Oscar (for the screenplay to Brokeback Mountain, which he co-wrote with Ossana, about two sexually conflicted modern-day cowboys). His storytelling has been compared to that of Charles Dickens and William Faulkner, and even the famously self-absorbed novelist Norman Mailer—himself a winner of two Pulitzers—once confessed his admiration. “He’s too good,” he said, explaining his resistance to McMurtry’s novels. “If I start reading him, I start writing like him.”

Nowhere is that writing as fiercely cherished or as deeply felt as in Texas, the setting for the majority of his work, and which McMurtry has by turns elevated and eviscerated with the kind of marrow-piercing observations only ever allowed native sons. His fans in Texas—and they are legion—treat him with the adulation typically reserved for movie stars. In 2014, when he appeared at the Dallas Museum of Art to promote his latest best-seller, a western titled The Last Kind Words Saloon, the 425-seat auditorium was filled to capacity, and dozens more ticket holders were ushered into overflow rooms to watch on simulcast. During a question-and-answer segment, audience members took turns commandeering the microphone to tell McMurtry what his books had meant to them. One woman spoke of her love of The Last Picture Show, his novel about teenagers coming of age in the fictional North Texas town of Thalia; another brought up Terms of Endearment, his novel about an indomitable grande dame in Houston’s wealthy River Oaks neighborhood. A man confessed that he had read the 843-page Lonesome Dove three times. And then another man rose to recall, in almost reverential tones, how as a student at Texas Christian University in the early sixties, he had played a game of Ping-Pong against McMurtry, who was then teaching at the school. The man had lost.

“Yes, I was quite good at Ping-Pong,” McMurtry replied, and the audience roared with laughter, as if it was the funniest thing anyone had ever heard.

I was raised just 25 miles from McMurtry’s hometown, in the metropolis—at least relatively speaking—of Wichita Falls. In the mid-seventies, when I was in high school, I bought a paperback copy of The Last Picture Show, turned to the first page, and started reading about Sonny Crawford, a high school senior who plays football for Thalia High, hangs out at a pool hall, drives a butane gas truck for his boss, Fred Fartley, and obsesses about having sex with girls in town, including his classmate Charlene Duggs, who kisses him “convulsively, as if she had just swallowed a golf ball and was trying to force it back up” but who allows him to touch her breasts for only a few minutes at a time.

I was mesmerized. I couldn’t believe that someone had written a novel about teenagers just like ones I knew in real life. Nor could I believe that such a book—set in the same plains where I’d grown up, with a character named Fred Fartley, of all things—was being praised as a literary masterpiece. “A performance rarely equalled in contemporary fiction,” read one critic’s quote on the cover of the paperback. Although I had no earthly idea then what good literature was, I knew I had stumbled onto something. The prose was both dramatic and slapstick funny, and the dialogue—pages and pages of it—was curiously riveting in its plainspokenness. I read almost all of it in one sitting.

I still own that paperback. It sits on a bookshelf in my house—a reminder, in some ways, of all the stories there are to tell, and that remain to be told, about Texas. No one knows this better than McMurtry, of course, who despite his age and prolific career continues to sit in front of his Hermes 3000 at least a few days a week, trying to knock out another chapter or scene.

In fact, when I looked closer at the manuscripts on his desk, I realized that he was working on not one but two novels. The first, which he had tentatively titled “Boss Charlie,” was based on the life and times of the nineteenth-century Texas cattleman Charles Goodnight; the second, “Rich Girl,” was about the life and times of a wealthy twenty-first-century woman who lives on a ranch outside Fort Worth.

What’s more, McMurtry told me, he and Ossana were on a deadline to complete a screenplay they had been commissioned to write by producer-director Cary Fukunaga; it was based on the true story of a man in Oregon who decides to walk across the United States after his fifteen-year-old son, bullied for being gay, hangs himself.

Surely, I said, taking a seat next to the sofa, such a workload must take its toll on a man who has just turned eighty.

“Well, my fingers aren’t as nimble as they once were, so I have trouble changing my typewriter ribbon,” McMurtry replied. “And there are days my vision gets so blurry that I can’t always see what I’ve typed. There are other days when my energy lags.”

He shrugged again. “But no, I’m not ready to quit. Not yet.”

Just then, Ossana, an attractive woman in her sixties with thick blond hair, walked in. She had been doing some work at the other end of the house. She gave me a cheerful grin. “Larry is like an old cowboy who has to get up in the morning and do some chores,” she said. “He has to get up and write. I don’t think he would know what to do with himself if he didn’t have something to write.”

McMurtry on a walk in Tucson, where he lives part-time.
McMurtry on a walk in Tucson, where he lives part-time.

Photograph by LeAnn Mueller

Spend any time with McMurtry, and it doesn’t take long to be struck—no, run over—by his restless, roving intellect. During my time with him, he talked about the personal lives of European leaders during World War I, a Siberian leper colony, the 2016 presidential campaign, concussions among professional football players, an afternoon he spent playing tennis with Barbra Streisand in Hollywood, the problems with air travel, his love of Dr Pepper and Fritos, the geoglyphs that can be found in the Atacama Desert of Chile, and a rodeo performer he once knew whose boot was ripped off during a bull ride, then sent flying through the air until it clobbered a spectator sitting in the bleachers.

“I’ll never forget one night, when my whole family was here for dinner, Larry started talking about early-twentieth-century authors and he ended up talking about women and inverted nipples,” Ossana told me. “We just sat there, our mouths open, wondering how his brain works.”

But ask McMurtry about his writing—why he became a writer in the first place, or what inspires him, or if there’s an underlying meaning to his fiction, or any other such forced attempt at introspection—and he is steadfastly unreflective. “I like making stuff up,” he told me, simply.

When I tried again—What about process? Did he ever get stuck developing a plot? Seize up sometimes before a blank page?—he sighed. “I just write,” he replied. “You either do it, or you don’t.”

Nor does he have any particular desire to discuss the characters he has created or the books he has written. “As soon as I finish a novel and ship it to the publisher,” he told me, “I almost immediately lose interest in it and never read it again.”

“Even Lonesome Dove?” I asked.

“I’ve never reread it. I don’t hang on to any of my books. If I did that, I wouldn’t have time to think about what I’m going to do next.”

I looked at him for a few seconds to see if he was joking. He looked right back at me, his face impassive.

That his voracious curiosity, and his ability to spin yarns, were forged on the empty flatlands of rural Texas makes either no sense at all or all the sense in the world. He spent his early childhood on a small ranch fifteen miles outside Archer City, where his father had him riding a horse by the age of three and herding cattle at four. McMurtry told me there were no books in the house—not a single one—until a cousin heading off to World War II dropped off nineteen boys’ adventure books with such titles as Sergeant Silk: The Prairie Scout. His parents did not read to him. “They preferred sitting on the porch, swapping tales with other relatives, or we listened to the radio,” he said.

When McMurtry was six, his father moved the family to a white frame home in Archer City (population: 1,675) so that McMurtry could be close to school. Scrawny and bespectacled, McMurtry was a good student. (“Keep in mind,” he cautioned, “that a good student in Archer City was any student who actually attended class.”) When he got to high school, he joined the 4-H club, played the clarinet (and later trombone) in the marching band, acted in school plays, wrote what he called “one-paragraph editorials” for the school newspaper, ran the mile for the track team, and was a starter on the school’s dreadful basketball team, which had the distinction, he recalled, of losing one game, to Crowell High School, by a score of 106–4.

McMurtry as a boy on his family’s ranch, sitting on his first pony.
McMurtry as a boy on his family’s ranch, sitting on his first pony.

Photograph courtesy of Larry McMurtry

His greatest extracurricular interest, however, was books—the very thing he hadn’t had access to on the ranch. After devouring his cousin’s adventure series, he bought pulp novels from the paperback rack at Archer City’s drugstore. When he was in Fort Worth one weekend for a track meet, he took a city bus downtown just so he could wander through Barber’s Book Store. He read Don Quixote and Madame Bovary. He even leafed through the Bhagavad Gita. “Anything I could get my hands on, I’d read,” he said. “Reading took me away, at least for a little while, from the drabness of Archer City.”

McMurtry’s father, realizing his son had no aptitude for ranch work, hoped that he would enroll at Texas A&M and become a veterinarian. But after watching a television program about the Rice Institute (now Rice University), which then provided free tuition, McMurtry applied, was accepted, and soon was off to Houston. Upon receiving a score of 2 on his first calculus exam, however, he realized that he would never pass any of Rice’s math courses, and he eventually transferred to North Texas State College (now the University of North Texas), in Denton, just under two hours’ drive from Archer City. There, he took a creative-writing class and composed poems and short stories, including two about Texas ranchers that he decided to combine and turn into a novel.

“So even back then you dreamed about becoming a novelist?” I asked, remembering how, when I got to college, I’d decided to be a writer just like him and produce my own novel about a boy growing up in Texas. (I never made it past the second chapter.)

“No,” McMurtry said. “I wrote only to fulfill the requirements of my class. If there had been something more exciting to do, I would have done that.”

After graduating, in 1958, he married Jo Ballard, who had studied English at Texas Woman’s University, in Denton. He returned to Rice to study for a master’s degree in English—no math required—and planned to pursue a Ph.D. and spend the rest of his life teaching. But he kept working on the novel, banging out five double-spaced pages on his manual typewriter every morning, just after breakfast.

“So you were consumed with some mystical urge to write,” I said hopefully. McMurtry shook his head. “It was only an urge to finish what I had started,” he said. “I wanted the book done so I could move on with my life.”

Still, based on the first draft, he was awarded a fellowship to attend Stanford University’s prestigious creative-writing program. His class was filled with other aspiring authors, such as Robert Stone, Tillie Olsen, Ernest Gaines, and Ken Kesey (who was married to his high school sweetheart, Faye). If there was an unspoken pressure to write the next great American novel—Kesey, for one, would soon go on to publish the wildly popular One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—McMurtry didn’t feel it. “I saw no conflict about writing about ranch life,” he told me evenly. “I thought it was a perfectly suitable topic for exploration.”

The ranch house where McMurtry spent his earliest years.
The ranch house where McMurtry spent his earliest years.

Photograph by LeAnn Mueller

The novel, Horseman, Pass By, whose title comes from a poem by W. B. Yeats—was published by Harper in 1961, after the Stanford fellowship had ended and McMurtry had moved to Fort Worth, where he got a job teaching English at TCU (and yes, played Ping-Pong). Set in the fifties, the book tells the story of a noble but financially struggling North Texas rancher named Homer Bannon; his coarse, unscrupulous stepson, Hud; and his earnest teenage grandson, Lonnie. The book opens with a lovely description of the Texas plains in April “after the mesquite leafed out.” In a subsequent chapter, Lonnie describes a horseback ride across the high country with his grandfather. “There below us was Texas, green and brown and graying in the sun, spread wide under the clear spread of sky like the opening scene in a big western movie.”

At the same time, the novel is starkly unsentimental about rural life as the golden age of ranching is coming to an end. A state veterinarian orders Homer to destroy his herd of cattle over fear of hoof-and-mouth disease; among the cattle he must kill are two old Longhorn steers he loves. (“I been keeping ’em to remind me how times was,” says Homer.) Hud is a restless, violent man who sexually assaults the family’s cook. Driving home one night from a rodeo, Hud accidentally hits Homer, who is crawling, senile, on the side of the road, and Hud decides to put the old man out of his misery with a .22 rifle. At the end of the novel, a disillusioned Lonnie climbs into a cattle truck and heads toward the lights of Wichita Falls.

McMurtry told me he expected Horseman, Pass By to sell “maybe a handful of copies and disappear,” and, in fact, the novel was hardly a best-seller. But shortly after it was published, New York Times critic Charles Poore declared McMurtry, then just 25 years old, to be “among the most promising first novelists who have appeared this year.” Impressed in particular with McMurtry’s descriptions of the “gnarled pastoral side to Texas life,” Poore hailed him for offering a new understanding of Texas. “The material he has at his command as a descendant of Texan generations is usable in all kinds of new ways. We say that, obviously, in view of the narrow range in which [Texas] has been exploited so far in our literature. Mostly boots and saddles, or oil rigs and billionaires.”

The rights to Horseman, Pass By were snapped up by a Hollywood producer, who turned it into the movie Hud, a kind of revisionist western starring Paul Newman. Released in 1963, Hud was a critical and commercial success, nominated for seven Academy Awards and winning three. In the meantime, Harper published McMurtry’s second novel, Leaving Cheyenne, which follows the lives of three more rural North Texans through the first half of the twentieth century: the serious Gid Fry, who is being groomed by his father to take over the family ranch; Gid’s best friend, Johnny McCloud, a free-spirited cowboy; and their neighbor Molly Taylor, who loves both Gid and Johnny and bears them each a son. (In one scene, Gid’s father tells him that “a woman’s love is like the morning dew, it’s just as apt to settle on a horse turd as it is on a rose.”)

Again, critics were impressed. “If Chaucer were a Texan writing today, and only 27 years old, this is how he would have written and this is how he would have felt,” wrote Marshall Sprague in the New York Times. “The book’s comedy is rare, the tragedy heart-rending—and, over all, there is an atmosphere of serenity and wisdom.” Though McMurtry was not yet convinced he could make a living as a writer—he continued to supplement his income by teaching, moving from TCU to Rice—he decided to write one more novel, and in 1966 he published The Last Picture Show, which he based largely on Archer City and the people he knew growing up. Although Sonny doesn’t bed Charlene, he does begin an affair with the football coach’s good-hearted wife, while his best friend, Duane Moore, goes after the prettiest girl in town, Jacy Farrow, only to be dumped and then drafted to fight in Korea. Adding to the sense of quiet desperation, the lone movie theater in town shuts down.

McMurtry’s own mother, after reading one hundred pages, hid the book in a closet because of the profane language and sex scenes, including one in which teenage boys perform rather unnatural acts with a cow. A few Archer City residents were furious with McMurtry for portraying their town as dreary and desolate. But critics remained fascinated with the young writer’s ability: one compared the characters in The Last Picture Show to the frustrated small-town cast in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Hollywood again came calling, and McMurtry sold the book’s film rights to Columbia Pictures, which also paid him to co-write the screenplay with Peter Bogdanovich, a promising filmmaker who would direct the movie. Bogdanovich hired relatively unknown actors—Randy Quaid, Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges—to play the teenagers, as well as the model Cybill Shepherd, who had never appeared in a movie; for the adult roles, he hired veterans Cloris Leachman, Ben Johnson, Ellen Burstyn, and Eileen Brennan.

McMurtry showed up in Archer City for a couple of afternoons to watch the filming. By this time, he and Jo had divorced—they had one son, James, who would grow up to become a respected singer-songwriter—and he arrived in his hometown alone. Everyone on set was riveted by him. “He wore these Buddy Holly–like glasses, and he was so smart,” recalled Shepherd when I called her recently in California. “And he possessed this quiet charm. One day when it was cold, he got in the car I was sitting in and held my hands to keep them warm. He told me about the poetry of Yeats. I had never met anyone like him.”

A view of one of the many floor-to-ceiling bookcases at his home in Archer City.
A view of one of the many floor-to-ceiling bookcases at his home in Archer City.

Photograph by LeAnn Mueller

When The Last Picture Show was released, in 1971, it was a sensation, receiving eight Academy Award nominations, including best picture, best director, and best adapted screenplay. (It received two Oscars: Leachman won for best supporting actress and Johnson won for best supporting actor.) Jack Kroll, Newsweek’s veteran film critic, went so far as to proclaim The Last Picture Show the best American movie since Citizen Kane.

That his books translated so well to the screen would, over the next several decades, propel McMurtry to the kind of stratospheric fame he could have never envisioned for himself as a writer. By this time he had moved to Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C., where he and a friend, Marcia Carter, the daughter of an oilman and diplomat, opened a rare-book store in Georgetown. McMurtry was hired by producers to write screenplays, including one based on John Barth’s philosophical novel The Floating Opera and another based on Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. (They were never produced.)

Meanwhile, he churned out more novels, this time with a distinctly urban backdrop: Moving On, published in 1970, features a sharp-tongued 25-year-old married woman in Houston named Patsy Carpenter who has a taste for extramarital affairs; All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers, published in 1972, details the adventures of Danny Deck, a young writer at Rice who has just learned his novel has been accepted for publication. And then came 1975’s Terms of Endearment, a novel of domestic manners whose protagonist, Aurora Greenway, makes dramatic pronouncements (“The success of a marriage invariably depends on the woman”), juggles a bevy of suitors (among them, a wealthy oilman who lives in a Lincoln Continental that’s parked on the twenty-fourth floor of a parking garage he owns in downtown Houston), and takes care of her daughter, Emma, who over the last sixty pages of the book dies of cancer.

McMurtry’s seemingly effortless shift—from rural to citified, from ranchers to socialites—was met with immediate praise. If before his work had caught attention for its unsparing portrayal of the state’s agrarian identity, now he was lauded for so easily embracing Texas’s emerging modernity. The New York Times critic Janet Maslin was so impressed at his ability to capture the inner lives of women in Terms of Endearment that she would later seek to credit him as the father of chick lit.

Needless to say, Hollywood pounced again, and the movie Terms of Endearment—this one featuring Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, and Jack Nicholson—became a blockbuster hit in 1983, receiving eleven Academy Award nominations and winning five. At least one actress contacted McMurtry to meet for lunch or drinks, hoping to persuade him to write a novel that could be turned into a movie starring her. Rumors abounded that he carried on flings with a few starlets; one story went that he had even been caught kissing one in a convertible on Sunset Boulevard.

“Not true,” he told me.

“Is the rumor true you ended up having a brief romance with Cybill Shepherd?” I asked.

“That’s a little true,” he replied, smiling ever so slightly. I smiled too. It was nice to know that, on occasion, the scrawny small-town boy with thick glasses can get the prettiest girl.

If McMurtry was impressed by all the attention, however, he didn’t show it. As a joke—or maybe it wasn’t a joke—he sometimes wore a sweatshirt imprinted with the words “Minor Regional Novelist.” “I was a minor regional novelist from Texas,” he told me. “That’s all I was.”

In fact, over the next few years, he did try to expand his fictional territory. After Terms of Endearment, he wrote Somebody’s Darling, about a female director in Hollywood on the verge of great fame; Cadillac Jack, which follows a rodeo bulldogger turned antiques collector as he womanizes his way across the country, eventually ending up in Washington, D.C.; and The Desert Rose, which chronicles the life of an aging dancer in Las Vegas.

He also attempted to distance himself from other Texas writers, including the great J. Frank Dobie, skewering them publicly for ignoring the realities of an evolving state, with its rapidly sprawling suburbs, in favor of nostalgic historical novels. In an essay published in the Texas Observer in 1981, McMurtry lambasted these Old West novels for being nothing more than “Country-and-Western literature,” overly romanticized stories about honorable cowboys and the joys of the open range.

Still, he could not escape the state’s own hold on him: even in the narratives set outside Texas, his characters often had to contend with the state in one way or another. In one comic scene in Somebody’s Darling, two screenwriters, Elmo Buckle and Winfield Gohagen, steal the director’s master print in hopes of secreting it away to Texas. “Texas is the ultimate last resort,” says Gohagen. “It’s always a good idea to go to Texas, if you can’t think of anything else to do.”

And then McMurtry himself chose to go to Texas in a way no one could have expected. He began writing an old-fashioned western about a cattle drive.

Based on his extensive reading of western history, as well as on the stories he had heard his relatives tell on the front porch, McMurtry saw the Old West not as a romantic frontier but as a shatteringly lonely and often barbaric place, where few people found any happiness at all. Now McMurtry set out to prove this, opening his novel with two retired, hard-bitten Texas Rangers in the forlorn border town of Lonesome Dove.

The ex-Rangers, Augustus “Gus” McCrae and Woodrow Call, lead a cattle drive to Montana with a ragtag team of cowpokes, which includes a black cowboy, a bandit turned cook, a piano player with a hole in his stomach, a young widow, a teenager who is Call’s unacknowledged son, and a prostitute. On their journey, the group encounters psychopathic outlaws, vengeful Indians, buffalo hunters, gamblers, scouts, cavalry officers, and backwoodsmen. They endure perilous river crossings, thunderstorms, sandstorms, hailstorms, windstorms, lightning storms, grasshopper storms, stampedes, drought, and a mean bear. There are plenty of shootings and a few impromptu hangings. The prostitute, Lorena, is gang-raped. In the end, after McCrae is mortally wounded by Indians, he asks Call to bury him in a little peach orchard by the Guadalupe River near San Antonio, where he was once in love with a woman. Call dutifully carries his partner’s half-mummified body back to Texas.

McMurtry told me he was offered “maybe a ten-thousand-dollar advance” for Lonesome Dove, because his editor was not sure readers would want to buy a western the size of War and Peace. (McMurtry accepted the advance because he wasn’t sure people would want to buy it either.) But when Lonesome Dove was released, in 1985, it grabbed hold of the public’s imagination like no western of its time, selling nearly 300,000 copies in hardcover and more than a million copies in paperback.

Readers raved over McMurtry’s precisely drawn characters, his depictions of place, his ear for frontier idioms, and his action-packed set pieces. They memorized lines of dialogue (“The older the violin, the sweeter the music”; “Ride with an outlaw, die with him”; Call’s unforgettable declaration after beating a surly Army scout to a pulp in front of shocked onlookers: “I hate rude behavior in a man. I won’t tolerate it”). And they reveled in the details, whether about food eaten on the cattle drive (beans laced with chopped rattlesnake) or, say, medical treatment (a cowboy bitten by an angry horse is given axle grease and turpentine for his wound). For Texans, went one joke, Lonesome Dove had become the third-most-important book in publishing history, right behind the Bible and the Warren Commission report.

The book was awarded the Pulitzer the following year, and when it was inevitably adapted for the screen—CBS aired a four-part miniseries based on the novel in 1989, starring Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall—a staggering 26 million viewers tuned in. Together, the novel and miniseries were arguably more influential in shaping Americans’ vision of the Old West than the movies of John Ford.

When I asked McMurtry about Lonesome Dove’s success, he did one of his shrugs. “It isn’t a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. “All I had wanted to do was write a novel that demythologized the West. Instead, it became the chief source of western mythology. Some things you cannot explain.”

McMurtry’s fame grew all the more: Annie Leibovitz took his photograph; universities invited him to lecture. “There were at least five men around the country who pretended to be me so that they could seduce women,” he said. “One woman called and said, “Don’t you remember who I am? I slept with you on Thanksgiving Day.’ I said, ‘No, ma’am, I was with my family on Thanksgiving Day.’ ”

Protective of his privacy, he embraced a peripatetic life, driving rented Lincoln Continentals around the country, visiting friends and secondhand bookstores. In addition to an apartment he kept above his bookshop in Georgetown, he had apartments in Los Angeles and Houston. He also purchased a two-story, prairie-style mansion for himself in Archer City, and, hoping to create an American version of Hay-on-Wye, the Welsh town that draws book lovers from all over the world, he opened an enormous used-book store in his hometown. Spread over four buildings downtown, it consisted mostly of the inventories he bought from other secondhand booksellers who wanted to get out of the business.

For Archer City residents, the resentment they had felt toward McMurtry over The Last Picture Show was long gone. One woman opened the Lonesome Dove Inn. The owner of the Dairy Queen taped the covers of McMurtry’s novels to the wall. When the New York author Susan Sontag came to Archer City, she looked around and told McMurtry that he lived in his own theme park.

I asked McMurtry again if it was really true that he hadn’t reread the novel. “I haven’t reread it, and incidentally, I’ve only watched parts of the miniseries,” he replied. “I’ve got other things to do.”

What he did was continue to write—relentlessly, pounding out his five pages daily on the Hermes 3000, which he took with him everywhere. (McMurtry, who despises computers, eventually purchased more than two dozen Hermes typewriters, which he kept in places around the country.) He seemed to issue forth a book every year or so, sometimes twice a year. He wrote another Old West novel (Anything for Billy, about Billy the Kid). He wrote Texasville, a sequel to The Last Picture Show, in which Sonny and Duane are middle-aged and still living in Thalia, and he also wrote The Evening Star, a sequel to Terms of Endearment, in which Aurora reads Proust and realizes her life is slipping away. He wrote more screenplays and composed book reviews and literary essays for such publications as the New York Review of Books.

When I asked McMurtry’s close friend Susan Freudenheim, a former Fort Worth museum curator who is now the executive editor of the Jewish Journal, in Los Angeles, how McMurtry was able to do so many things at the same time, she sighed. “There’s no way to explain it,” she said. “He operates on a different plane than everyone else. One day, Larry and I were out somewhere, and he said he had to take me back to my apartment because he had to write a long book review for the Times. He said he would be done in an hour. I thought, ‘Impossible.’ But one hour later, there he was, back at my door, his review typed up and ready to send.”

One would think that if there was anyone who did not need a writing partner, it would be McMurtry. But in the late eighties, on a visit to Tucson, he met Diana Ossana, who was then a legal assistant and the mother of an eleven-year-old daughter. (The two happened to be dining at the same all-you-can-eat catfish restaurant.) They became very close friends—neither would describe their relationship to me as romantic—and in 1991, when McMurtry underwent quadruple-bypass surgery after suffering a heart attack, she told him he was welcome to stay in her back bedroom and recuperate at her home.

He arrived with a typewriter and some books—among them, his twelve-volume edition of Proust and the diaries of Virginia Woolf. Sitting at Ossana’s kitchen counter, he quickly crafted Streets of Laredo, a sequel to Lonesome Dove, in which Call, as an old man, is hired by a railroad to chase a Mexican bandit. But afterward, McMurtry began to experience some post-surgical depression, sitting on the couch and staring out the window for hours. Ossana intervened. “I realized that if he didn’t write his five pages a day, he would die,” she told me. “So I basically forced him to go back to work.”

An unpublished author who had written a few short stories, Ossana occasionally made comments about McMurtry’s manuscripts. She sometimes rearranged passages and suggested plot twists. “She was very good, and I was very grateful,” said McMurtry. In fact, when a producer called and asked for a screenplay based on the life of Pretty Boy Floyd, the Depression-era gangster, McMurtry said he would do it only if Ossana could be his co-writer. The two wrote the script, then turned it into a novel when the film was not produced. Once McMurtry finished a prequel to Lonesome Dove (Dead Man’s Walk), they also co-wrote another novel, a western titled Zeke and Ned, as well as a couple of teleplays and screenplays, including, hilariously enough, a film adaptation of the fifties television series Father Knows Best. (It was never made.)

Then, in 1997, Ossana handed McMurtry a short story in The New Yorker that had been written by Annie Proulx, titled “Brokeback Mountain,” about Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist, two ranch hands who fall in love in Wyoming as teenagers in 1963 and continue their tortured affair, furtively, over the next twenty years. Envious that he hadn’t thought of the story first, McMurtry—who had known gay cowboys growing up—embraced the idea of bringing the narrative to the screen. He and Ossana secured the rights to the story from Proulx, wrote a script, and waited to see if the movie would be made.

While they waited, McMurtry knocked out some more books: another Lonesome Dove prequel (Comanche Moon), a series of four novels about a British family who travels through the American frontier in the 1830s, and Duane’s Depressed, in which the former football-playing teenager from Thalia is now an oil millionaire and so bored with his life that he stops driving his pickup truck, begins walking everywhere instead, falls in love with his lesbian psychiatrist, and eventually flies to Egypt to see the pyramids.

McMurtry even wrote an odd book of history titled Oh What a Slaughter! Massacres in the American West: 1846–1890. When I asked him why he took on such a subject in the midst of everything else, he said, simply, “The massacres interested me.”

“Did you ever consider slowing down, at least a little? Take some sort of break from writing to restore your creative batteries?” I asked.

McMurtry gave me one of his stares. “Writing is what I do,” he said.

McMurtry had no expectation that Brokeback Mountain would ever be produced; a gay-cowboy movie was not exactly on the wish lists of Hollywood studio executives. But then famed director Ang Lee jumped onboard, as did stars Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, and when the film was released, in 2005, it provoked an unprecedented national conversation about sexuality, machismo, and the power of story. The movie earned eight Academy Award nominations, including for best picture. (It won three: for best director, best adapted screenplay, and best original score.) Just as McMurtry had strived to do in his novels, Brokeback Mountain took a familiar genre—cowboy life—and shattered it.

At the Academy Awards ceremony, which he attended with Ossana, McMurtry wore blue jeans with a tuxedo shirt and an Armani tuxedo jacket, a sartorial choice that got him almost as much media attention as the A-list actresses in their designer gowns. “I wanted to be comfortable, because going to the Oscars is like sitting all day in a gymnasium,” he told me. “Anything to make it less onerous, I will do.”

In his late sixties, standing on the red carpet with Ossana at the 2006 Academy Awards.
In his late sixties, standing on the red carpet with Ossana at the 2006 Academy Awards.

Photograph by K Mazur/WireImage/Getty Images

It might have seemed a perfect time to retire at the top, or at least scale back. McMurtry was 69, and as he himself had suggested in his 1999 collection of essays, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, most fiction writers in their sixties lose their touch. “Self-repetition, if not self-parody, are the traps that await elderly novelists,” he wrote.

In fact, some critics were already accusing McMurtry of parodying himself in his Lonesome Dove sequel and prequels. (“It turns out the person who can write the best parody of Larry McMurtry is Larry McMurtry,” wrote one.) The New York Times’ Dwight Garner panned him for writing too many books. “He writes so much that supply outstrips demand,” he snapped. “A lot of his stuff verges on being—how to put this?—typed rather than written.”

McMurtry ignored the criticism. “I’ve never written to please other people,” he told me. In the years following his Oscar, he published three short memoirs (about his life as a writer, his life as a book collector, and his life in the film business), a short biography of General George Armstrong Custer, and two more novels (When the Light Goes and Rhino Ranch) featuring Duane Moore, who still lives in Thalia, suffering from clogged arteries because of eating too many butter-basted T-bones at a steakhouse in nearby Seymour. Duane, who is often said to be McMurtry’s alter ego, tries to find love with a variety of women, ponders all the hits and misses of his life, and finally keels over dead, alone, while laying a trotline.

Then, in early 2011, McMurtry pulled a Duane-like move. He picked up the phone and called Faye Kesey, who lived on a farm in Oregon and who had not remarried since Ken’s death, in 2001. McMurtry, who told me he had always maintained “a curiosity” about Faye since meeting her during their Stanford days, arranged for Faye to fly to Texas and come to Archer City. “I had wanted to see his bookstore,” explained Faye, who today is a spry and very pretty 81-year-old with blue eyes and shoulder-length gray hair. “And I could tell Larry wanted some company. He seemed a little lonely.”

The visit quickly turned romantic. McMurtry bought a ring from a jewelry store in Wichita Falls, and in April they were married in Archer City by a justice of the peace before members of their families and a small group of McMurtry’s friends, including Ossana, Freudenheim, his former bookstore partner Marcia Carter, and the actress Diane Keaton, who has long wanted to turn Somebody’s Darling into a movie. (Cybill Shepherd couldn’t make it.) In his wedding vows, McMurtry told Faye, “I promise I will always be interesting.”

“And has he been?” I asked Faye.

“Oh, very interesting,” she said, smiling, her eyes radiant behind her glasses. “I have to say, you don’t find many people like Larry.”

Soon after the wedding, McMurtry was back to writing fiction, and in 2014 he published The Last Kind Words Saloon, a spare novel that follows the Old West icons Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday from a saloon in the Texas settlement of Long Grass to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in Denver to the climactic gunfight at the OK Corral, in Tombstone, Arizona. The book made best-seller lists. In the New York Review of Books, Joyce Carol Oates gushed, “It’s as if Vladimir and Estragon of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot have been transformed into two aging gunslingers trading wisecracks and platitudes in an existentially barren western landscape, waiting for a redemption that never comes.”

Just as he had ignored the criticism, McMurtry ignored the praise. “Oh, the book was fine,” he said when I mentioned Oates’s review. “It could have been better.” I asked if he still agreed with his assessment in one of his memoirs, Literary Life, in which he’d declared that none of his work was “really great.” He nodded. “Maybe a couple of books will last,” he said. “But the rest will end up on back shelves of bookshops. There could be worse fates.”

Was he right? Perhaps, I thought, it was true that the next generation of readers, an increasingly diverse swath of globalized and digitized consumers, would know little of McMurtry or his work. But it was also true—and I knew this as a reader myself—that McMurtry had forever shaped the way people see Texas, with all of its past, all of its stories, all of its changes. As Mark Busby, a professor of English at Texas State University and a leading McMurtry scholar, told me, “What no one can deny is that McMurtry has made Texas feel very real. His books have taught people that Texas is not just a curious part of the country but an unforgettable piece of the American experience.” He continued, “Think about it. Parents are still naming their boys Gus or Call. I named my own dog Hud.”

McMurtry with his wife, Faye Kesey (left), and writing partner Ossana, as well as the six dogs with whom they share a home in Tucson.
McMurtry with his wife, Faye Kesey (left), and writing partner Ossana, as well as the six dogs with whom they share a home in Tucson.

Photograph by LeAnn Mueller

Several weeks after my trip to Tucson, I went to see McMurtry in Archer City, where he and Faye were spending a few days. Except for a couple of new businesses, the town looks almost exactly as it did when he was a boy: dry and dusty, the sole stoplight still blinking, the movie theater shuttered. McMurtry’s house, which was once the country club, sits a few blocks from downtown.

The house, which has floor-to-ceiling bookcases in almost every one of its fourteen rooms, the shelves filled with McMurtry’s favorite books—28,000 in all—has the air of an invitation-only private library. As Faye cheerfully put dishes away in the kitchen, McMurtry gave me a tour, pointing out some of his prized collections: novels written by Russians, novels written by poets, novels written about the Yellow Peril, travel books written in the nineteenth century by women. He stopped to show me a 1929 edition of Nathanael West’s novel, Miss Lonelyhearts, which he had found after a 25-year search. “It cost me six thousand dollars,” he said. “Now you know the real reason I keep writing.”

He put the book back on its shelf, then led the way to the dining room, where one of his Hermes 3000s sat on the table. There was a slight wobble in his walk. McMurtry, ever more frail, is slowing down: his balance, he told me, is not good, and he has had to stop driving because of his weakening eyesight. He takes blood-pressure and blood-thinner medications for his heart; he has trouble going up and down stairs. Last fall, when he received a National Humanities Medal from President Obama at a White House ceremony, he wore his New Balances instead of his favorite cowboy boots because he was worried he might slip and fall on the marble floors. “Old age comes on apace to ravage all the clime,” he said, quoting the eighteenth-century Scottish poet James Beattie. I asked him if he planned to be buried in Archer City some day. “No, I think I’ll go for cremation,” he said, matter-of-fact as usual. “I’ll have my ashes kept in the bookstore. That seems appropriate.”

We soon headed to the bookstore—Faye driving McMurtry, me following in my car. The store now takes up only two buildings; in 2012 McMurtry held a large book auction, selling off nearly three-fourths of his inventory to make it more manageable. Inside, there were only a couple of customers. “Our business these days is largely online,” he said as we strolled the aisles. “It’s sad to say, but the era when one wandered through an old bookshop is almost gone forever.”

McMurtry had one more thing to show me. We got back in our cars, and I followed as Faye drove to the little ranch outside town where McMurtry spent his early childhood. As we turned off the highway and onto a dirt road, I was struck by how much the plains around us looked like those McMurtry described 55 years ago in Horseman, Pass By. The mesquite had begun to leaf out, and new grass was carpeting the flats. As we crested a hill, the ranch country spread wide under the clear spread of sky like the opening scene in a big western movie.

We pulled up to the ranch house. Not far away, on another property, was a giant wind turbine, its blades slowly turning. McMurtry haltingly made his way across the small front yard, holding onto Faye’s arm as he stepped onto the stone porch. He opened the door, and as we walked inside, I took a breath. Each room, even the kitchen, was filled with books, neatly arranged in customized bookshelves that McMurtry had added to the house. “I thought you would like this, to see all the books in my once-bookless home,” McMurtry said.

A few minutes later, he seemed ready to return to Archer City. It was apparently time to get back to the Hermes 3000. There were, after all, two new novels to work on and a screenplay to write.

We stepped back out on the porch, and he took another look around, his gaze turning south. In the distance stood the Cross Timbers, a belt of trees that marks the lower border of the Great Plains in Texas.

“You know, people have no idea how empty the world is out here,” McMurtry said. “They don’t understand its bleakness.”

“And yet you keep coming back,” I said.

“I keep coming back,” he replied. A light breeze came up, blowing wisps of his white hair across his forehead. “I admit, I always do.”

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  • joytipping

    Two questions, Skip: Has there EVER been a picture taken of Larry McMurtry smiling? And does he still have that carriage house behind his Archer City house that’s been turned into a huge, gorgeous window-filled library (I got to see it on a Mayborn trip.)

  • Bruiser in Houston

    Brokeback is actually the story of two SHEPHERDS, not cowboys, and it takes place starting in the 50s.

    Skip must be a yankee to not know the difference.

    • Debbie L. Trevino

      Actually a SHEPHERD is someone who tends to his sheep on foot, the subjects in Brokeback Mountain ride horses and have ranching backgrounds so in fact they are cowboys who took they only job they could get at the time which was sheep herding.

      • Bruiser in Houston

        You’re not a Texan, are you?

  • Jana Mae

    He lived down the street from us in the Houston subdivision, Maplewood South, in the 60s. I was a teenager, but I remember him because he would “walk” his Saint Bernard, by driving up and down Yarwell in a tiny, foreign convertible sports car, holding a leash attached to the panting dog. I seem to remember a Scottish golf cap and a pipe as well, but I wouldn’t swear to it. He definitely did not blend in 60s suburbia and didn’t hang around long.
    Moving On was my first McMurtry read and I was hooked. It was not until years later my mom told me it was one and the same person.

  • TPolyak

    Wonderful article! Lonesome Dove never gets old! I’ve two of his books on my desk now ready to read!

  • Paul Alexander

    A very interesting and well done honor to one of the best, if not the best, authors I have read. I have enjoyed his understanding and acceptance of his many various characters. I think I am a more open minded and understanding person form reading his novels.
    Thank you for this excellent tribute!

  • Archangelsky Park

    Great insightful article http://screenplay.biz/the-curators/