The Essential Larry McMurtry

Here is an excerpt from article written by Andy Greenwald for The New York Times, published on Nov. 30, 2023, and updated on Dec. 5, 2023.

A wildly prolific son of Texas, Larry McMurtry was a tangle of contradictions. Here’s where to start.

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“Texas has produced no major writers or major books,” wrote Larry Jeff McMurtry, rather despairingly, in 2011. He was being modest. McMurtry, who died in 2021 at 84, was himself an undisputed titan of the Lone Star State and a wildly prolific one at that. During his lifetime, McMurtry published 33 novels and a baker’s dozen of memoirs, essays and assorted balooey. McMurtry’s best-known works weren’t just major — they became major motion pictures like “Hud” (adapted from “Horseman, Pass By”), “The Last Picture Show” and “Terms of Endearment.” And the rest were only as minor as the descending chords in a bluegrass ballad, idiosyncratic variations on a warm and wistful twang. You don’t need to know all the songs by heart for the melodies to linger.

McMurtry’s life, like his bulging bibliography, is tough to get one’s arms around. (To paraphrase a regional cliché, everything is bigger in a McMurtry novel — especially the page count.) He was a tangle of contradictions. Raised on the outskirts of Archer City, Texas, by a cattle-ranching family, McMurtry was educated in the hills of Berkeley, where he was a Stegner Fellow at Stanford (along with Ken Kesey and Wendell Berry). He was a known crank and an infamous flirt; a small-town bohemian; an Oscar winner (for adapting “Brokeback Mountain”) and a pathological antiquarian.

But, through it all, he was a writer — averaging between five and 10 pages a day of something, every morning, for decades. And though he was an unlikely exemplar of his home state in appearance — teetotaling, bespectacled, with a mild phobia of horses — Larry McMurtry was, in fact, a peerless interlocutor of Texas, bridging the gap between its rural past and its noisy, urban present. And despite dalliances on the West Coast (with Cybill Shepherd and Diane Keaton, among others) and expensive habits (rooms at the Chateau Marmont, caviar at Petrossian), he always returned, somewhat grudgingly, to his birthplace. By refusing to let Texas define him, he helped redefine it.

For someone with such a keen and penetrating voice, he sure loved to listen. In a McMurtry book, everyone is interesting — even tertiary characters are a riot of quirk and detail. And, most notably for a white male writer of a certain age, McMurtry was fascinated by women, not in an objectifying manner, but rather with a dogged, almost courtly interest in the particulars of their lives.

Where most authors would align themselves with the swashbuckling rangers of the Lonesome Dove tetralogy, the most revealing character in the extended McMurtryverse might be the least likely: Patsy Carpenter, the winsome protagonist of the novel “Moving On,” who spends her happiest hours curled up in a rickety Ford with a melted Hershey’s bar and a box of old paperbacks. “Sometimes she ate casually and read avidly — other times she read casually and ate avidly,” he wrote of her and likely of himself, too. Whatever your appetite, there’s a McMurtry book for you, too.

I love a great heroine.

Say you’re one of the millions who have wept happily at the conclusion of James L. Brooks’s adaptation of “Terms of Endearment.” You’re book-curious, slightly cowboy-averse and don’t know where to begin. Great news! The answer is easy: “Terms of Endearment” (1975). Deeper and more digressive than the film adaptation, the novel orbits the ravenous Aurora Greenway. She is gargantuan in appetite and affect, collecting parking tickets and suitors with intoxicating gusto (though not every suitor: Jack Nicholson’s Garrett Breedlove is a purely cinematic invention). As with many McMurtry heroines, the frippery masks a spine of pure steel. When tragedy gathers, the true purpose of Aurora’s overstuffed social network is revealed: not to distract but to protect. Any tears you might shed at the end will be for the still-hopeful living, not the unfairly dead.

(“The Desert Rose,” from 1983 — which swaps swampy Houston for the dry heat of Las Vegas — would make a nice double feature. Once again, a vibrant woman is knocked into a tizzy by a wayward daughter, only this time with sequins.)

I’d like to read his masterpiece.

“Lonesome Dove” (1985), a.k.a. Your Dad’s Favorite Novel, is the book McMurtry avoided writing for the first half of his life — and spent the second half of his life relitigating. Like Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” (released the year before), the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lonesome Dove” is a masterpiece of missed intentions.

“One of McMurtry’s aims in ‘Lonesome Dove’ was to pierce the romantic image of the trail-riding cowboy,” Tracy Daugherty writes in his recent biography. And the novel does its level best: As two retired Texas Rangers, Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call, lead a cattle drive from the Rio Grande to Montana, their quixotic caravan encounters the worst the world has to offer. The young and innocent die terrible deaths; the open country, far from romantic, is arid and hostile. “It’s mostly bones we’re riding over anyway,” Gus thinks, in a cheerful attempt to keep despair at bay.

And yet the book — which began life as a proposed screenplay that would bring James Stewart, Henry Fonda and John Wayne back for one last rodeo — is undeniable, awash in wit and wonder. With a canvas close to 1,000 pages, painted like a prairie sunset across a proscenium of sky, “Lonesome Dove” remains one of the best and happiest reading experiences of my life. To McMurtry’s chagrin, few myths were busted — in fact, quite the opposite. Multiple generations have now replaced their memories of the Alamo with those of the Hat Creek Cattle Company: something else rather foolish, noble and fleeting that’s nonetheless impossible to forget.

(A note to the TV crowd: Yes, the 1989 CBS miniseries is iconic. But only the novel is essential.)

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

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