Larry McMurtry: A Life
“For Larry McMurtry, invention and re-invention were one and the same.”
Larry McMurtry died a few months shy of his 85th birthday in the spring of 2021 in the Texas town he had grown up in and made famous, Archer City, called Thalia in The Last Picture Show and other novels. In the many films and television series made from his books, Hollywood helped spread the word of his genius, of course. But McMurtry didn’t need much help. As a contemporary American writer, in terms of being prolific, he ran a close second to Joyce Carol Oates with his four dozen novels and works of nonfiction, along with a slew of screenplays.
For some readers and critics, McMurtry was the Tolstoy of Texas. For others, McMurtry’s repeating and intersecting characters created a Texan Yoknapatawpha, something akin to what Faulkner had done in Mississippi. Tracy Daugherty, friend and fellow Texan, knows both subjects, man and state, well. Daugherty is an accomplished fiction writer and the biographer of Joseph Heller, Joan Didion, and Donald Barthelme. For the most part, Daugherty’s account of McMurtry’s life is readable, informative, and compelling.
McMurtry grew up on a ranch in the bleak Texas heartland and favored books over horses and cattle, but he was nurtured on cowboy lore and western myths, and they became the catalyst for his fiction. According to Daugherty, McMurtry had two obsessions as an adolescent: girls and book collecting. He stayed true to both obsessions throughout his life.
During much of his writing career, he devoted a considerable amount of his time to the bookstores he owned in Washington, D.C., and Archer City. And women? Besides two wives (his second marriage, in the last decade of his life, was to Ken Kesey’s widow, Faye), he had an epic cast of women friends and lovers in his life: Cybill Shepherd, Diane Keaton, Susann Sontag, Leslie Marmon Silko, and a host of others, including his long-time writing partner Diana Ossana. With Ossana, he won the 2006 Academy Award for best adapted screenplay for their reworking of Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain.”
McMurtry had other successes in film and television. His 1986 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Lonesome Dove, became a monumentally successful series, and McMurtry found himself to be a highly sought-after screenwriter. Daugherty’s narrative about McMurtry’s life reads at times like a Hollywood insider’s story with anecdotes about the frictions between Debra Winger and Shirley MacLaine on the set of Terms of Endearment, sordid accounts of Peter Bogdanovich and the murder of Dorothy Stratton, glimpses of Swifty Lazar, Jeff Bridges, and Diane Lane.
Eventually, he became so famous that even in his hideaway in Archer City, where he oversaw his store, Booked Up, he was the main tourist fare. Hotels named private rooms after his novels. Restaurants put his favorite breakfasts on display along with menus. His friend Susan Sontag said that he “seemed to be living in his own theme park: the Mickey Mouse of McMurtryville.”
McMurtry started out, though, as a lanky, long-limbed, bookish Texas boy who, after graduating with a BA in 1958 from the University of North Texas and then an MA from Rice in 1960, went on to become a Stegner Fellow at Stanford and studied under the crusty Irish writer Frank O’Connor. During McMurtry’s time at Stanford, he shared the stardom with Ken Kesey, who was there working on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and organizing the creative chaos of the Merry Pranksters.
McMurtry left Stanford as a 25-year-old phenomenon with his first novel, Horseman, Pass By, which two years later was turned into the movie Hud. In his long career that followed, McMurtry wrote major novels depicting the old and new West and debunking its myths. He also wrote some self-parodies that both writer and reader would likely be happy to forget. In prose that is at times a bit careless, Daugherty notes McMurtry’s long list of genuine achievements and questionable successes and deserved failures.
McMurtry was probably his own harshest critic, though. When someone compared Lonesome Dove to War and Peace, he said it was more like a Western Gone with the Wind. At one point late in life, he declared, “I am a minor regional novelist. . . . I try to think of anyone I think is really major. In the generation of Mailer and Roth and Bellow . . . I think all of those guys are minor. The one person I think is not minor is Flannery O’Connor. I think she was a true genius, painful genius. . . . But there’s nothing wrong with being minor. If you’re in the show, still writing books . . . it’s fine if you’re minor. I’m glad I got that high. Not everybody does.”
As one of his critics said, McMurtry’s successes depended upon his failures. As much as he professed to want to stop writing at times, he couldn’t ever stop. So, he wrote obsessively, and he was brave enough to risk failure. McMurtry was an iconoclast, at times shockingly honest, but always, it seemed, big-hearted. Like Faulkner, he was an exile from the land he loved and loathed, and despite all of his nomadic instincts, he could never leave Texas. Wherever he was —Santa Monica or Georgetown or Arizona—the locus of his imagination was always Texas. Former wives, former girlfriends, platonic lovers, writing partners—he cherished them all and they all loved him. Deeply. He disproved Fitzgerald’s oft-quoted line about there being no second acts in American literature. For Larry McMurtry, invention and re-invention were one and the same.