The Pastures of the Empty Page

Larry McMurtry and the literature of place.

larry mcmurtry
Steve Carroll

I didn’t think, at first, of Larry McMurtry as a Texas writer. It seems impossible in retrospect, but there it is. I bought his 1972 novel All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers at a book sale, long tables arrayed across the wooden floor of a Manhattan high school gymnasium, slanted rows of dog-eared paperbacks. I would go to that sale every year and come home with stacks of titles. They were cheap—10¢ apiece or at most a quarter—which meant that for $5 or so, I could pick up a full slate of summer reading. This was the mid-1970s, and I was in my early teens.

For me, the books I bought represented promises or invitations, the earliest emerging signposts of what I imagined as the broad terrain of literature, a landscape I was desperate to map. I was already a reader, but there was a difference, I was discovering, between what I’d been instructed to read and what I encountered on my own. The writers to whom I gravitated included Sam Greenlee, Richard Condon, and Erica Jong. Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, and the Beats. McMurtry felt to me like he was part of that. “All I knew was that I wanted to be somewhere near North Beach, where the Beat Generation lived,” the narrator of All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers, a novelist named Danny Deck, enthuses after moving from Houston to San Francisco. “Of course most of them had stopped living there years before, but in my mind that was where they lived when they were not in Denver, or on the road, and when I walked the streets I always half expected to come around a corner and see Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg.”

This article appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Alta Journal.
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My copy of All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers was a Pocket Books mass-market paperback. I’m looking at it right now (or an image of it on the internet): title in all caps, black against the white background of the cover, and a full-color illustration, in the photo-realistic style of the era, of the protagonist walking away from a house that rises up behind him, carrying a leather satchel containing the failed second novel that he would drown in the Rio Grande in the closing pages of the book. That ending was part of what thrilled me about McMurtry’s novel; it felt hopelessly romantic, although I’ve since come to read it in a different way. By then, I already knew I wanted to be a writer, and if I didn’t yet understand why anyone would destroy a manuscript, I was attracted to the intensity of the moment, its authenticity. That was what I wanted, to have big feelings. I wanted to play by my own rules. McMurtry seemed to be offering a kind of road map. It did not occur to me that the map he was creating had everything to do with place.

All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers was McMurtry’s sixth book and fifth novel. His first three novels—Horseman, Pass By (1961), Leaving Cheyenne (1963), and The Last Picture Show (1966)—had been adapted into films. In the early 1960s, he had been a Stegner Fellow at Stanford, in a cohort that included Tillie Olsen, Ken Kesey, Wendell Berry, Peter S. Beagle, and Robert Stone. This proximity, my sense of these writers incubating together, felt exhilarating. I wanted to imagine literature as a calling, which made the Stegner Fellowship a novitiate of sorts. I wanted to be initiated into the order. I wanted the secrets revealed.

And yet, for all that I admired McMurtry’s early work, with its portrayals of small-town Texas, I also read it as vestigial, somehow…precursory. I was interested in cities and contemporary characters. I was interested in the world in which I lived. Such a world was reflected in All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers and McMurtry’s magnificent 1970 novel, Moving On, which were centered in Houston. A number of his characters were students at Rice. In them, I could see myself, or at least something I thought I recognized, a trenchant slice of urban and academic life.

AUTHENTIC FOLKWAYS

My perspective changed in December 1979, when I moved to Texas. I was 18 and on a year off between high school and college, which meant this was a short-term plan. I would spend two and a half months there, a quick in and out. It was a place to bank some money before moving on to San Francisco, where I planned to pursue literary dreams, not unlike Danny Deck. I landed in a town called Three Rivers—south Texas, not north like Archer City, where McMurtry had been born and raised and where he would die, on March 25, 2021, at the age of 84. Archer City was the inspiration for Thalia, the setting of his early novels. “There was only one car parked on the courthouse square—the night watchman’s old white Nash,” he writes in The Last Picture Show. “A cold norther was singing in off the plains, swirling long ribbons of dust down Main street, the only street in Thalia with businesses on it.”

Three Rivers, too, was a one-main-street kind of town. It had a movie theater and what seemed like about a hundred churches, and freight train tracks that dead-ended at the refinery. Its main industry was oil and gas exploration; I had a job working construction in a uranium mine. After work, I came home to a one-room garage apartment. The kitchen was a hot plate and a frying pan. I don’t want to suggest that Three Rivers made me think about McMurtry; mostly it made me feel out of place. Then, perusing the spinning racks of paperbacks in the town drugstore, I came across McMurtry’s 1978 novel, Somebody’s Darling, and something, a bit of recognition, began to generate.

Somebody’s Darling is not a Texas book, although it has some scenes there; it’s a novel about Hollywood. Its narrator is a filmmaker named Jill Peel, whom McMurtry first introduced in All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers, at which point she had been involved in a complicated relationship with none other than Danny Deck. “You wanted to write,” Jill accuses Danny in that novel. “…If you’d really wanted me you’d have come the day I left, or never let me leave.… You’d really rather write than cope with me. I don’t blame you a bit. I’d really rather draw than cope with you. I just don’t think you ought to be so goddamn righteous about wanting me. You did what you really wanted to do.”

I read Somebody’s Darling in that garage apartment, in a town as alien to me as anywhere I’d ever been. Encountering McMurtry again felt a bit like going home. There was his voice, at once intelligent and vernacular, and his ability to write about women—so many of his protagonists and narrators are female—with a vivid intimacy. At the same time, I had become aware of something else: of a connection to the landscape in which I was now living, of McMurtry as a Texas writer, after all. Those city books, they represented Texas as much as the early novels; the place was vast, and it encompassed many ways of life. Indeed, he had created a fictional world in which many elements, both places and characters, recurred or came to intersect.

“Did you ever know Danny Deck?” Jill asks late in Somebody’s Darling. The target of her inquiry, an older man named Godwin, acknowledges that at one time the two of them were rivals. As readers, we know this already, even though Jill does not; it’s the catalyst for All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers. But that is less important here than the land and its effects. “These were Danny’s skies, his hills,” Jill thinks during a visit to Texas hill country. “It was a pity we had never come to Texas together. I didn’t want to talk about him anymore.” All of a sudden, it made sense to me, the way his books built upon each other, one after the next, to tell a bigger, or ongoing, story. Even when his characters left Texas, the state remained a part of who they were.

This, it seems to me, is the source of what has long been among the most compelling aspects of McMurtry’s project: that his fictional universe is more expansive than the terrain of any single book. Characters come and go throughout his novels. Characters, and locations too. It’s hard to say whether he had such an intention in mind from the beginning, although his first three books are commonly known as the Texas Trilogy. What this means, it turns out, is that they are a trilogy of place rather than of people—“three short elegiac novels,” he explains in his 1968 book, In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas, “…all of which dealt in a small way with a large theme: the move from the land to the cities (or the small town to the suburbs), which occurred in so much of America shortly after World War II.”

As McMurtry notes, this was happening everywhere during the postwar era, particularly in the West. Think of Joan Didion’s debut novel, Run River (1963), which re-creates the moment when the river ranches of the Sacramento Valley began to be carved up for residential real estate. Still, Texas is its own place, with its own tropes, its own mythic structure. “Before I was out of high school,” McMurtry continues, “I realized I was witnessing the dying of a way of life—the rural, pastoral way of life. In the Southwest the best energies were no longer to be found in the homeplace, or in the small towns; the cities required these energies and the cities bought them. The kids who stayed in the country tended to be dull, lazy, cautious, or all three; those with brains, zip, and daring were soon off to Dallas and Houston.”

In a Narrow Grave is a fantastic book, among McMurtry’s best. Its brilliance resides in its willingness to wrestle with all the vagaries and complications of place, which the Texas Trilogy addresses in a different way. The essays were followed by what he came to call the Houston Trilogy, which expands the focus in all sorts of ways, sharing a cast of common characters, including the indifferently married Patsy Carpenter, whom we meet on the first page of Moving On, sitting “by herself at the beginning of the evening, eating a melted Hershey bar,” and her best friend, Emma Horton, who cheats on her husband with Danny Deck in All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers and dies as Terms of Endearment (1975) comes to a close.

Taken together, this pair of trilogies dramatizes much of what McMurtry observes in In a Narrow Grave—the shift from rural life to urban life, yes, but also the need to develop a new set of frames and meanings. “In their youth, as I have said,” McMurtry writes, “my uncles sat on the barn and watched the last trail herds moving north—I sat on the self-same barn and saw only a few oil-field pickups and a couple of dairy trucks go by.… Not long after I entered the pastures of the empty page I realized that the place where all my stories start is the heart faced suddenly with the loss of its country, its customary and legendary range.”

What he’s saying is that all this change, this upheaval, this need for a new language, has happened within the span of living memory. What he’s saying is that history is compressed. That makes for a vivid challenge for the writer, one that is heightened when it comes to Texas and the West. “One sometimes wonders,” McMurtry confides partway through In a Narrow Grave, “if Bowie and Travis and the rest would have fought so hard for this land if they had known how many ugly motels and shopping centers would eventually stand on it.” The uncertainty highlights an essential tension of his career. It begins in the country, where the old ways are waning. It continues to the city, where they have been mythologized.

McMurtry makes this explicit in Moving On, where Patsy’s husband, Jim, is obsessed with photographing rodeos; it’s as if he imagines himself as an anthropologist of the culture in which he was raised. “I grew up in the land of rodeo, saw a great many of them as a youth, and cannot recall ever being particularly interested in them,” McMurtry writes in a preface to the 2000 edition of the novel, which was reissued after the success of the Pulitzer Prize–winning Lonesome Dove. Patsy, too, remains less than entranced; that scene with the Hershey bar takes place in a rodeo parking lot, where she is sitting in the car alone, reading Catch-22. “Why I felt the need to graft a rodeo plot onto something I was interested in writing about—i.e., graduate school—is a mystery I don’t expect to solve,” McMurtry further acknowledges. But the truth is that it’s an almost perfect metaphor. What it reveals are the traditions of Texas, or more accurately the folkways, not merely conflated but inverted; what was once authentic, or vernacular, has been rendered contrived. Compare the circuit on which Jim and Patsy travel with the rodeo that comes to Thalia in Horseman, Pass By. “During all that time there was nothing but beer drinking and rodeo talk, courting and dancing, and even the merchants in Thalia came out in Western wear,” McMurtry writes there. “Rodeo was the one big get-together of the year.”

larry mcmurtry
Larry McMurtry in 1985, the year “Lonesome Dove” was published.
Diana Walker/Getty IMages

BURDEN OF THE PAST

What McMurtry’s getting at is not nostalgia; Horseman, Pass By and Moving On were written a decade apart, and during that period, preoccupied as he was with the ways the West was changing, he was nothing if not nostalgia-averse. The first of these books is self-contained—constrained might be a better word—in its movements; narrated by a teenager named Lonnie, it is about the end of a period of time. For Lonnie, this is personal as much as it is societal. He lives on his grandfather’s ranch. When the old man can’t run the place any longer, something has to happen. It is an individual or familial tragedy more than a collective one.

Moving On, meanwhile, is sprawling: 800 pages, among the longest books McMurtry ever wrote. It is about people on the cusp: of love, of adulthood, of raising children. I read it in San Francisco during the summer of 1980, before I had experienced the full weight of that sort of hope and longing. But even then, I understood that the book was about a different kind of loss. “I didn’t expect to feel middle-aged so early in life,” Emma says to Patsy as they sit together in a park “watching their three children and discussing their marital plights.” The irony, although we don’t yet know it, is that Emma is already past the midpoint of her life. Time again, the back and forth of it, the way we are suspended between the future and the past. The present, it is just a moment, but it comes to us weighted by all that’s happened as well as everything that’s yet to come. In McMurtry’s work, this is as true of setting as it is of character. Texas, in other words, which he seeks to address or re-create not through the lens of its clichés or stereotypes but, rather, through the lens of daily life.

For a long time, this meant avoiding the legend of the cowboy, which McMurtry had resisted even as he recognized its allure. “The state,” he argues at the beginning of In a Narrow Grave, “is at that stage of metamorphosis when it is most fertile with conflict, when rural and soil traditions are competing most desperately with urban traditions—competing for the allegiance of the young. The city will win, of course, but its victory won’t be cheap—the country traditions were very strong. As the cowboys gradually leave the range and learn to accommodate themselves to the suburbs, defeats that are tragic in quality must occur and be recorded.” He may as well be referring to Jim or Lonnie. He may as well be referring to himself.

In subsequent years, such contradictions would get the best of McMurtry. He would write himself into a corner. He would get a little lost. After Somebody’s Darling, he would publish two desultory novels, Cadillac Jack (1982) and The Desert Rose (1983), before producing, with the publication of Lonesome Dove in 1985, the very sort of cowboy epic he had once rejected. “I thought I had written about a harsh time and some pretty harsh people,” McMurtry admitted in 2000, “but, to the public at large, I had produced something nearer to an idealization; instead of a poor man’s ‘Inferno,’ filled with violence, faithlessness and betrayal, I had actually delivered a kind of ‘Gone With the Wind’ of the West, a turnabout I’ll be mulling over for a long, long time.” In the wake of that retrenchment, he produced a string of westerns and a string of sequels. It’s no knock on his significance or his achievement to acknowledge that none of them rise to the level of his most revelatory work.

No, to be fair, none of that makes any difference. None of that matters in the least. It’s all there in those first eight books: Horseman, Pass By; Leaving Cheyenne; The Last Picture Show; In a Narrow Grave; Moving On; All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers; Terms of Endearment; Somebody’s Darling. In almost every way that matters, they represent a complete career. What I learned from McMurtry was the necessity of vision, of a writer’s having a perspective on the world. What I also learned was that, for both characters and their creators, things don’t always work out as we might hope. This is the lesson (or one of them) of McMurtry’s late career, but, of course, he understood this all along. The ending of All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers represents a case in point. “The book in my hands was hundred-headed, like Grendel,” McMurtry writes there, in the voice of Danny Deck, describing the drowning of his novel in the Rio Grande. But what he is also describing is the burden of the past. “Parts of it,” he goes on, “nearly slipped loose in the fast current. I wadded them. My superb condition began to tell on the novel—my superior strength began to prevail. The novel got squishier and squishier, deep in the channel of the Rio Grande. Finally it got completely squishy, and I knew it was dead. I let it go and came up. My head was still pounding but the river was clear. No pages floated upon it, only moonlight and the reflection of stars.”•

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