Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 27 Jul 2017

Larry McMurtry: ‘book rancher’

Prompted in part by the excellent and interesting review of Larry McMurtry’s memoir, Books, I recently read perhaps his best known novel, The Last Picture Show and reviewed it here.

I thoroughly enjoyed the novel but what I really wanted to do was sample more of his non-fiction because Books made me realise that there was a side to McMurtry that I knew nothing about. I found copies of Books, the second memoir, Literary Life, and the earlier memoir-cum-extended essay, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen and during the past week read all three.

I enjoyed Books and Literary Life, but if I’m completely honest found both a bit slapdash – or perhaps casual is a better and fairer word. Both (and especially Books) are really only collections of anecdotes and I was left wanting more.

The book that offers more is Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen – it is accomplished and of an entirely different order to the two later memoirs.

The premise of Dairy Queen is this. Sitting in his local Dairy Queen café in west Texas – a haven from the heat and punishing sun of the prairie – McMurtry is reading Walter Benjamin’s 1936 essay, The Storyteller, which is a meditation on the nineteenth century Russian writer Nikolai Leskov and more broadly on the role of storytelling and narrative in society and human culture.

McMurtry uses this somewhat obscure essay as a launch-pad for his own consideration of the immense gap which exists between European culture – the “human and cultural density” of the great European cities of the nineteenth century that spawned the towering social realists and the later modernists – and the pioneer experience of the American West. “How many centuries,” McMurtry wonders, “does it take to get from a pioneer family with all their possessions in a wagon to Proust and Virginia Woolf?”

And that, in a splendid nutshell, is really what this marvellous book is about. Where Books and Literary Life tell us what McMurtry has done, Dairy Queen – probably like nothing else he has written – explains why. This is the book in which McMurtry thinks most clearly and most deeply about what has driven him and I found it utterly fascinating and strangely gripping.

It also has some marvellous autobiographical moments. For example, across his family’s hayfield beside the ranch, he can see the lights burning in the upper rooms of the local oil baron’s mansion. The man – who is grieving the death of his only son – is reading late into the night in his library. In his bedroom above the garage the young McMurtry too is reading one of the small handful of books he possesses. He and the grieving oilman are probably the only two people within dozens and dozens of miles who are each lost in the books they are reading. Thirty or so years later, the oil baron’s house belongs to McMurtry and is filled with thirty thousand books. His bookshops in Archer City hold another three hundred thousand volumes. His houses elsewhere hold another few thousand.

During the course of the book McMurtry reflects on the romanticisation of the Old West, the visual culture of the pioneer experience (it is, he maintains, a culture more extensively documented in paint and photography than in literature); he thinks about how, in Europe, writers “touched with madness” produced works of great genius, whereas on the American frontier “prairie derangement” produced only “family sorrow”; and he examines the difference between “the dense and the empty, open and closed, new country and old cities, no society and old society”.

But perhaps first and foremost (and this is why I prefer it to the later Books) it is about reading – the urge to read, the act of reading, the necessity of reading, and the importance of “great readers”. For McMurtry owes his education, he acknowledges, almost entirely to a handful of “great readers” who have been his guides, his inspiration, his mentors and teachers – great readers who “always know about books that neither the marketplace nor the academy has got around to” and see it as their responsibility to spread the word about these books, to pass on the message, to help ensure the legacy of great literature.

Interestingly, but I can’t remember in which of the three books it occurs, McMurtry considers how difficult it sometimes is to tell established novelists that their best work lies elsewhere. For example, VS Naipaul, James Baldwin and Norman Mailer, he says, will all live far longer for their non-fiction than their fiction – and he suspects that this will be the case with his own work. His novels will die, he believes, but Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen he considers “to be as good as anything I have ever written”. I think he is perhaps being overly harsh on at least some of his fiction, but as far as Dairy Queen is concerned, he’s right: it’s a masterpiece. Don’t miss it on any account.

Alun Severn

July 2017