Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen

Larry McMurtry

Read March-April 2007

Every artist practices, but it may be the peculiar lot of writers that their practice sessions get disproportionately turned into output for the masses, who learn to view them with a jaundiced or at least skeptical eye. Something like this has happened to Larry McMurtry, the great chronicler of the American West. A judgmental mind would argue that McMurtry is cashing in on his fame, but a more dispassionate reading is that McMurtry is an honest craftsman, and we get the result of all his craft: good, bad, and indifferent. And then a work like this, which is in some other category entirely, a paradoxical work—the slim discursive book—that is laden with mediocrity but also touched with the brilliance that reminds us of why we care about McMurtry at all.

You will scarcely get a better opening than this: the archetypal Texan writer sits in the archetypal Texan institution (a DQ) drinking the archetypal Texan drink (Dr. Pepper) and wonders about what a cosmopolitan European Jewish intellectual (if the category did not exist, it would have to be created for Benjamin) has to say about the fleeting rurals about him. McMurtry picks up a thread about the growing loss of storytelling and narrative and, while he never entirely unravels that yarn (so to speak), what follows is as close to a memoir as McMurtry has come, interspersed by monologue.

The structure of the book scarcely matters: any attempt to describe it would be to fall prey to McMurtry's organizational conceit, which I think was largely post-hoc. McMurtry is anyway notorious for disregarding traditional order: the FAQ for his Archer City bookstore, Booked Up, says as of this writing:

Q. How are the books arranged?
A. Erratically/ Impressionistically/ Whimsically/ Open to Interpretation

It is just as well, for he ranges far and wide, from his heart surgery and his family's strife. Less personally, he smoothly moves beween one-liners about Texas to Nicholson Baker and the demise of library card catalogs (p. 36), the problem with reading lists (p. 103), a predictable (but worthwhile) rant against the Internet and TV (p. 107), and on the relationship between composing a literary work and a bookstore (p. 158): the books are like words, etc. Ultimately, the heart of all this perambulation is a central question: whether curiosity exists (and this is the link that ties back to Benjamin). McMurtry seems to think we live in a post-curious age.

If McMurtry is right (but he's not) and storytelling is losing ground (but it's not), we should savor his offerings while we still can: the touches of genius more than compensate for the signs of weakness and lack of focus. McMurtry is like a thinking-man's version of Garrison Keillor, who is done a disservice by the author of the back-cover blurb, who seems to not have gotten past the first few pages. Go further; indulge and enjoy!