Larry McMurtry and the Books We Cherish

Royal Theatre, Archer City, Texas

Photo of Royal Theater in Archer City by Nicolas Henderson

It was during my junior year in high school that I read a Larry McMurtry book for the first time. The book was The Last Picture Show, Larry McMurtry’s coming-of-age masterpiece, published in 1966. The Academy Award-winning movie that was based on the book was made in McMurtry’s hometown of Archer City, Texas and released in 1971. Both the book and the movie had been around for years before I encountered either one of them. I remember that I wanted to read it because there had been the hint of scandal about it, and I was at the age when a whiff of sex was enough to get me turning pages.

There are books that stay with us our entire lives, embedding a spark of enlightenment, or transforming the way we see our world, or making us feel things we had never dwelled on before. For some of us, those are the books we read over and over again, returning to them with the same enjoyment that we feel when we hear from an old friend with whom we have been out of touch for a while. We lose ourselves in a time and a place that seems more appealing than the world we are living in, either because of the location or the people who populate it.

For me, many of the books that I still treasure I read during that period of time, during my own coming-of-age years. Books such as The Last Picture Show, A Separate Peace, and Red Sky at Morning still hold a special place in my heart. Each time that I read them I find that it is on two levels; one is the level of my current level of wisdom and knowledge, and the other level is a part of me that once again becomes that teenage girl who was searching for answers.

There are other books that seem to mark milestones in my life. Texasville, the sequel to The Last Picture Show, is one of my favorite books. In Texasville and the following books in the Thalia series Larry McMurtry switched the focus from Sonny Crawford to Sonny’s friend Duane Moore. The book came out in January 1987, but it was one I read many times when I was struggling to stay in a difficult marriage. When I think of the first time I read Texasville, I remember the big king-size bed where I sat by myself on a Sunday afternoon, reading to immerse myself in another world to block out the loneliness I felt. Even now when things are chaotic in my life, I reread Texasville. For some reason that I can’t explain, it seems to be put everything back in perspective for me. I’ll always feel gratitude to Larry McMurtry for writing a humorous novel that still has the power to get me through not only rough times that I go through now, but that earlier time when I felt so much sadness and despair.

In his book Literary Life: A Second Memoir, Larry McMurtry writes that he considered Duane’s Depressed to be his best novel (McMurtry 161). Duane’s wife Karla had been one of my favorite characters in Texasville, and her death in Duane’s Depressed grieved me so deeply that I almost stopped reading the book, but Duane’s touching letter to her redeemed much of the book for me. When the Light Goes was not my favorite book of the series. The opening chapter of Rhino Ranch was the inevitable consequence of Duane’s bad choices in When the Light Goes.

The delightful Rhino Ranch was a wonderful closure to the series. After I finished reading it for the first time, I sat without moving, reviewing the last chapter in my mind, and remembering the highlights of each of the books in the series. I felt sadness, but it was the acceptable sorrow that one feels for the death of someone who has had a long, fulfilling life. McMurtry writes, “When I finished Rhino Ranch I thought of it as a farewell to fiction. After all I have finally killed off the character who has occupied me the longest” (168). McMurtry confesses that after he finished, he “felt the loss” of his character. “I have now followed Duane Moore from adolescence to old age and it would be strange if I didn’t miss him. He was not my alter ego in the first books, but he was certainly my alter ego in the last books” (41, 42).

I need those periodic literary journeys to Archer City, Texas. A reviewer on said it far better than I can in her review of When the Light Goes, the fourth book in McMurtry’s Thalia series. In her online review, KT Turner from Blue Springs, Missouri, wrote, “I’ve found that I keep returning to these Thalia novels because they’re comforting. That might not be the precise reason but really it is the best that I can do.”

Larry McMurtry describes the difference between his Pulitzer Prize winning novel Lonesome Dove and his Thalia series when he discussed the differences between the books. “But Lonesome Dove was at bottom a romance. The Picture Show quintet isn’t. It’s very old-fashioned solid realism, the very thing the post-modernists were determined to eliminate. (And yet they didn’t.)” (168). It’s the realism of the Thalia series that makes it so appealing, that causes readers to return to the story of Duane’s complicated life.

In April 2012 I made a pilgrimage to Archer City, Texas. I visited Larry McMurtry’s bookstores, all four of which were still in operation. I wandered through the stacks of books that perfumed the air with the scent that only old books have. I did not ask to meet Mr. McMurtry or ask any personal questions about him. I have strong feelings the privacy of celebrities when they are in their hometowns. I feel that writers give their readers much more of their personal lives than most people do and we should not be greedy and ask for additional impositions on their time if they are not on tour or at a promotional function.

After I left the bookstores, I toured the town that I’d read about. I took photos around the town square and of the courthouse. While I was at the corner of Main and Sycamore, taking photos of the Royal Theater, a man drive up in a pickup truck. When he stopped at the stop sign, he glanced over at me and smiled. I felt like a voyeur, snapping photos of this town that I’d read about so many times, but it was nice to know at least one of the locals was not offended by an outsider’s interest in his small hometown. I had lunch at the Dairy Queen. I put off going back to my motel in Wichita Falls, reluctant to leave, driving slowly along the dusty streets. When I finally drove away, I felt as if I was leaving behind a place where I’d once lived, but all the people that I’d known had moved away.

Although he has been a highly-successful writer, McMurtry felt that his books had not received much positive critical reception. He writes, “As for literary opinion, as it applies to contemporary writers, I am much more willing to accept the judgment of time than I am the judgment of any literati. Time will sort us out, determine who was really good from who was mediocre” (104). In an interview by George Getschow in Texas Monthly, McMurtry says, “If I had to point to two books that might lift me out of the minor catalogue it would be Duane’s Depressed and Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen.  I think those are both really good, really, really good books. A lot of the rest of them are good, but they’re not earth-shaking. It’s okay to be minor. In fact, if you can be minor you’ve made a considerable achievement, because most people don’t register on the scale of minor or major at all. So I’m not worried about it.”

When I read The Last Picture Show and Texasville, I am puzzled why McMurtry considers himself to be a minor writer. Most writers would be thrilled to have had the effect on their readers that McMurtry has had. Although he has gotten good reviews, it is the statements of readers on and where they speak of rereading favorite books that are the true test of a writer who has achieved greatness. I hope that future generations appreciate McMurtry’s books, especially his Thalia series, as much as I have.

My silliest quirk is that I own four copies of The Last Picture Show and Texasville. The reason is because I would misplace one of the copies, have a craving to reread the book, and go buy another copy. I’ve also advanced from my earlier paperback copies to owning hardback copies. I recently bought all the Thalia series books in large print hardback so I’m set for rereading them as I grow old. I like to imagine myself in my twilight years, sitting by a fireplace with a patchwork quilt thrown over my legs, reading Texasville for the fiftieth time.

I recently decided I needed to cut down on my book collection because no one should have six huge Rubbermaid tubs of books in her basement, not to mention the numerous bookshelves stuffed with books that populate my house and garage. As I sorted out which books were going to the local library’s annual sale, I found myself holding a battered paperback copy of Red Sky at Morning, its pages brown with age, reluctant to part it even though I own two trade size copies of the same book because I remembered reading the small paperback copy over and over again when I was in high school. It had been one of my favorite books during that period of my life when I discovered women wrote better poetry than men did and my freshman English teacher, Mrs. Miriam Gash, had us read Wuthering Heights, inspiring a secret passion for literature that dealt with lovers haunted by the memory of someone they can’t have.

For several minutes I stared at the extra copies of McMurtry’s books, debating whether or not to let them go or save them to give to as yet unborn grandchildren who might love the books that I love. I hesitated. Experience with my own children has taught me the next generation does not always appreciate the literature that resonated with us during our own youth. Neither one of my sons would even touch Red Sky at Morning, although they both have complete sets of the Harry Potter books and one is a rabid fan of Terry Pratchett. In the end, I couldn’t part with those extra paperback copies of my two favorite Larry McMurtry books. The memories of the literary journeys I’d taken to Archer City, Texas were far too cherished for me to let go.

McMurtry, Larry. Literary Life: A Second Memoir. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009. Print.

Photo of Royal Theater in Archer City was taken by Nicolas Henderson