Some people ...

... have asked about my Larry McMurtry essay/review which appeared in print in April but not online. So here it is.

Land of the Lost
Larry McMurtry returns to his most famous character and depicts a Texas that's as big and troubled as the real thing
Men's Vogue
March/April 2007
by Jerome Weeks

About 10 years ago, the novelist Larry McMurtry wanted to persuade a bookseller from Tucson to move to Archer City, Texas, 100 empty miles northwest of Fort Worth. The tiny place is Mc Murtry's hometown, the one he turned into the fictional Thalia in The Last Picture Show. He hoped the woman would manage Booked Up, his own antiquarian shop, which, since it opened in 1987, has taken over four storefronts in the dwindling downtown. So McMurtry wrote her a five-page letter detailing every reason she'd never want to move to West Texas: She'd be lonely, never get a date, never find anyone with her literary interests.

McMurtry's attitude toward Texas has always been deeply fissured by such ambivalence. He has complained that he grew up in "a bookless part of a bookless state," and for such a seriously bookish man -- essayist, historian, book collector, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and Oscar-winning screenwriter for co-adapting Brokeback Mountain -- it is a sad (and grimly accurate) observation about the Texas of his youth. Perhaps the longest torture a McMurtry character endures isn't some frontier brutality in an Old West saga. It's when the writer, taking a bit of revenge on those bookless Texans, makes his long-standing alter ego -- Thalia good ol' boy Duane Moore -- read all of Proust.

Somewhat surprisingly, Duane is back for more in When the Light Goes, McMurtry's 28th novel. It's somewhat surprising because his last appearance, in 1999's Duane Depressed, seemed to signal the end of the so-called Thalia trilogy, which also includes the 1987 novel Texasville. Back in 1966, when Duane and his buddy Sonny appeared in The Last Picture Show, they were restless teens fumbling with sex, death and the frustrations of small-town life. The remarkable 1971 Peter Bogdanovich film version -- with Jeff Bridges as Duane and a memorable Cybill Shepherd as the high-school hottie, Jacy -- remains a bleak yet tender portrait of Thalia, filmed in Archer City itself: the sand-blown streets, the forlorn pursuit of sports, sex and drink to escape the soul-killing boredom. "If y'all didn't jack off so damn much, mebbe yew could stay in shape!" the tobacco-spitting Coach Popper yells at his useless team.

Yet as gritty as it is, the film doesn't convey the full mockery of the novel, which includes minor yokels with names like Frank Fartley. The author later confessed he'd dashed the satire off "in a fit of pique" toward Archer City.

Still, for many people, such films as Terms of Endearment and especially the many Lonesome Dove-related mini-series (Comanche Moon is due later this year), suggest that McMurtry doesn't hold a grudge against Texas. After all, he has written so movingly about it -- from its gleaming cities to its gunslinging past. Yet even Lonesome Dove was intended, the author has said, as "a poor man's Inferno, filled with violence, faithlessness and betrayal." Which explains why he was taken aback when this savage debunking of heroic cowpokes -- his very own Deadwood -- was widely received as a big-hearted epic, a la Gone with the Wind. And so he filled his later Westerns with increasing violence and satire.

With Texasville, he upped the satire to outright farce. Now, middle-aged and married, Duane has made a fortune and lost it, and Thalia itself has become an oilfield-trash boomtown -- it's My Name is Earl with a Neiman's account. And although everything seems to happen in this comic best-seller -- philanderings, bankruptcies, a joke Texas history pageant -- none of it matters much. Everyone winds up back where they began. (Bogdanovich's 1990 film version -- with many of the stars from The Last Picture Show -- seemed even more pointless.) Then came the scorched earth of Duane's Depressed. Jacy dies. Duane's wife Karla dies. Even Sonny dies. Of the two boyhood chums, he was the mopey nice guy. So McMurtry whittled him down until he just was staring off, dreaming of classic Westerns, his own last picture show.

Texas, the old saying goes, is hell on horses and women. it's clearly hell on sensitive guys as well. In Duane's Depressed, even Duane wants out; the novel ends with his flight to Egypt. Inevitably, this led readers (McMurtry's publisher, too) to conclude the series was over. The big guy had left the building.

But the Thalia trilogy was never a trilogy. Its residents actually first saw print in 1964 in a rarity -- a McMurtry short story titled "There will Be Peace in Korea." It's best encountered these days in a Texas Bound audiobook, read with a beautifully laconic ache by Tommy Lee Jones. The story is an early version of a late chapter in The Last Picture Show: Duane bids Sonny farewell and leaves for military service. In short, Duane was always itching to get outta Dodge, and the Thalia series has been a chronicle of his escape attempts. In When the Light Goes, he returns from Egypt only to realize that Thalia has become "a miserable, windblown, drying-up town." His wife is dead, his daughters live in Dallas, and his son runs Duane's oil-drilling business from Wichita Falls.

Yet there's Duane's unrequited lust for his psychiatrist, Honor Carmichael. McMurtry has long had a yen for frank, sexually provocative women, and Duane, lucky stiff, is rewarded with two of them here: Honor and Duane's 20-something assistant Anne Cameron, whose perky nipples inspire much discussion around Thalia. Considering its relative brevity (all of 208 pages), When the Light Goes may have the highest explicit-sex-per-page quotient of any of McMurtry's work. But Duane isn't randy anymore: After a lifetime of chicken-fried steak at the Dairy Queen (the eatery McMurtry wrote about in Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, his fine 1999 book of essays), his clogged arteries require serious bypass surgery. As one of Dan Piraro's Bizarro cartoons has it: Come to Texas for the barbecue; stay for the angioplasty.

Lately, literary lions have been retiring or killing off their alter egos. Richard Ford's recent Lay of the Land was the last Frank Bascombe novel, and Philip Roth will bid Nathan Zuckerman goodbye in Exit Ghost, set for this fall. Death and departure figure in many of McMurtry's titles -- Leaving Cheyenne, Dead Man's Walk, Moving On -- but in When the Light Goes, Duane faces an explicit choice: Leave Thalia (and Texas) or die.

In contrast, that Tucson bookseller -- despite McMurtry's letter of warning -- did eventually come to Texas to manage Booked Up. A recent trip to the store found a note posted on its front door. Addressed to "our customers, alarmed or otherwise," it declared that the economic crisis that has killed antiquarian shops across America will not, for now, force McMurtry to close. A glance along Archer City's main street reveals that the town's storefronts look amazingly like they did in the opening shots of The Last Picture Show. Thirty-five years ago, though, they were dusty and spiritually empty. Today, they're mostly just empty.

Yet McMurtry, the novelist-book-collector-historian, remains. Or perhaps, given When the Light Goes and Duane's thorny relationship with his town, it's more accurate to say, he persists.

July 16, 2007 8:24 AM |



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