About the Book by Tracy Daugherty Titled “Larry McMurtry: A Life”

From a New York Times review by Dwight Garner headlined “Larry McMurtry, a Critter of the American West Who Rejected Its Mythos”:

When the art critic Dave Hickey learned that Tracy Daugherty was writing a biography of his friend Larry McMurtry (all three men are Texans), he said to Daugherty: “Knowing Larry, it’s going to be a real episodic book.” Episodic this biography is. It’s also vastly entertaining.

McMurtry, the prolific author of “The Last Picture Show,” “Terms of Endearment” and “Lonesome Dove,” was a demythologizer of the American West who appeared to live in several registers at once.

On the one hand, this biography suggests that his life was rather deluxe. He was the American president of PEN, the literature and human rights group. He ate caviar at Petrossian with Susan Sontag. When Sontag was sick with cancer, he sent caviar to her bedside. He hunkered down for long stretches in a suite at the Pierre Hotel (when in New York) and at the Chateau Marmont (when in Los Angeles).

He wrote for The New York Review of Books. He had intimate friendships with Diane Keaton and Cybill Shepherd; Shepherd has called him the love of her life. He attended his agent Swifty Lazar’s fabled Oscar night parties. He knew his way around Georgetown dinner parties, and even more so around rare books.

On the other hand, he’d grown up on a ranch. The ochre mud never entirely came off his boots, nor did he want it to. He wasn’t entirely comfortable on the coasts. He was a sloppy dresser; his belts tended to miss some loops. He loved Fritos, Dr Pepper, peanut patties and Hershey’s chocolate bars. He had a method with the Hershey’s bars. He liked them warm. He’d let them melt on his car’s dashboard while driving, then lick the goo off the wrapper.

He could read and drive at the same time, he claimed, at least on the Texas plains. Once, stopped for speeding, he explained he’d been writing in his head and got excited. He was good at friendship. He liked gossip, dirty jokes and taking his slick Manhattan friends to stock car races.

The antic side of his personality means that Daugherty’s book, “Larry McMurtry: A Life,” reads a bit like one of McMurtry’s novels. Elegy and humor bleed into each other. This biography contains many sentences that verge on the humorous. For example: “He stalked the university corridors fiercely wielding his Ping-Pong paddle”; “The bacon cheeseburger had just been invented and we thought that was great”; “He lived in McMurtry’s pornography room”; “The main concern was finding good bars you wouldn’t get killed in”; and, about a poor movie made from one of his books, which he watched while sinking in his seat, “It’s not so bad if you only see the top half of the screen.”

This is the first comprehensive biography of McMurtry, who died in 2021 at the age of 84. Daugherty is previously the author of biographies of Joseph Heller and Joan Didion, as well as the Texas writers Donald Barthelme and Billy Lee Brammer. He is the right person for this job, perhaps too much so. If his book has a fault, it’s that Daugherty tries to out-McMurtry McMurtry. His sentences get awfully loose and folksy (“a town no bigger than a gnat,” etc.), and this quality tempted me to sink in my own seat the way McMurtry did in that movie theater. I decided not to let it bother me, and you shouldn’t either, because he does everything else well.

He rakes his material into a story that has movement; he’s a good reader of the novels; he has an eye for anecdote and the telling quote; he builds toward extended set pieces, such as the filming of “The Last Picture Show” in Archer City, McMurtry’s hometown. (Half the locals loathed McMurtry for, in his semi-autobiographical novel, suggesting the town had so many dark secrets.) When McMurtry’s equally talented son, the musician James McMurtry, has a song lyric that suits the mood, this biographer knows how to tweezer it in. Daugherty also makes the point that McMurtry’s novels “had to be seen as one long stream.”

He comprehensively covers McMurtry’s long career as a rare book dealer, both in Georgetown and in Archer City. McMurtry compared book collecting to ranching. “Instead of herding cattle,” booksellers herd books, he wrote. “Writing is a form of herding, too; I herd words into little paragraphlike clusters.”

McMurtry was recognized, during his lifetime, as an important American writer. He won a Pulitzer Prize (for “Lonesome Dove”) and an Academy Award (for writing the “Brokeback Mountain” screenplay with his frequent collaborator Diana Ossana). He matters because of how closely he observed declining ways of life, and he intimately charted the national migration from rural to urban existence. But as he pointed out, in a letter to his friend Ken Kesey, the author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” his books worked because of the attention paid to character:

“For me the novel is character creation. Style is nice, plot is nice, structure is OK, social significance is OK, symbolism worms its way in, timeliness is OK too, but unless the characters convince and live the book’s got no chance.”

McMurtry met Kesey when both were graduate students in the creative writing program that Wallace Stegner ran at Stanford University. Kesey arrived in 1958, McMurtry in 1960. They were competitive. But while McMurtry spent every morning writing (he averaged five to 10 pages a day, every day, his entire life), Kesey became increasingly interested in being a countercultural impresario. McMurtry barely drank and did not do drugs, but he did make an amusing cameo appearance in Tom Wolfe’s book “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” (1968), about Kesey’s road trip with his Merry Pranksters.

Women loved McMurtry, and he loved them back. He had a long string of female confidantes and sometimes lovers, and these were by and large serious relationships. Unlike James Dickey, who makes an appearance in this book with a stripper known as the Miami Hurricane, McMurtry was not a serial imbiber of groupies. He married twice, once early and once late. After his divorce from his first wife, Jo Ballard Scott, in 1966, they continued to see each other nearly every day and he paid for her classes at Rice University. They talked on the phone constantly. Scott said, “He was always the guy that drove everybody home.”

Outside of his marriages, he tended to be intertwined with several women at once, none of whom, in this telling at any rate, has a bad word to say about him. These women included not just Keaton and Shepherd but the writer Leslie Marmon Silko and the journalist Maureen Orth, to whom he dedicated “Lonesome Dove.” McMurtry was always on the road, there but not there. “I had become a kind of Proust of the message machine,” says McMurtry’s alter-ego Danny Deck, in “Some Can Whistle” (a sequel to my favorite McMurtry novel, “All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers”), “leaving elegant, finely modulated monologues on the … machines of distinguished, or at least distinctive, women in New York, California.”

The only thing that meant more to McMurtry than his relationships was his writing. This book is a study in vocation. Dave Hickey got the first word in this review. Let’s give him the last one, too:

“Larry is a writer, and it’s kind of like being a critter. If you leave a cow alone, he’ll eat grass. If you leave Larry alone, he’ll write books. When he’s in public, he may say hello and goodbye, but otherwise he is just resting, getting ready to write.”

Dwight Garner has been a book critic for The Times since 2008. His new book, “The Upstairs Delicatessen: On Eating, Reading, Reading About Eating, and Eating While Reading,” is out this fall.

Speak Your Mind