A New Biography Celebrates the Enduring Greatness of Writer Larry McMurtry

From a Washington Post review by Bryan Burrough headlined “A new bio celebrates the enduring greatness of Larry McMurtry”:

To be a Texas writer these last 50 years or so is to labor beneath the branches of the great Larry McMurtry oak. Even now, two years after his passing, his influence and his presence are inescapable. Practically all the older writers I know here in Austin are one or two degrees of separation from McMurtry, either a pal, one of his many female companions, a target of his barbs or just someone trying to explore a niche he left untouched, which isn’t easy, given an oeuvre that stretches from “The Last Picture Show” and “Lonesome Dove” to “Terms of Endearment” and the screenplay for “Brokeback Mountain.”

The question I’ve heard lately, though, is: How good was he; I mean, really? The editor Michael Korda once termed McMurtry, only half-jokingly, “the Flaubert of the Plains.” Others invoke Tolstoy; “Lonesome Dove” has been called “America’s ‘War and Peace.’” But while he produced several classics, they represent only a small fraction of his enormous output, and the rest of it, especially in his final decades, was seldom of the same quality. A can of Dr Pepper and a Hershey bar beside his typewriter, he wrote his famous five pages every morning, and every year the books, often sequels and prequels to his greatest hits, kept coming.

There’s a debate here about how we judge artists, whether by the entirety of a career or its peaks. But McMurtry’s valleys are too many to overlook. In the pantheon of postwar writers, he probably doesn’t deserve a seat beside Mailer, Vidal and Capote. The Austin novelist Stephen Harrigan, one of his acolytes, suggests comparing him to Wallace Stegner, another Westerner whose prodigious writings, many thought, never got enough respect from Eastern literati. Maybe.

McMurtry’s journey from childhood on a North Texas ranch through teaching posts at Rice University, running a bookstore in Georgetown and his final years in Tucson is told capably in the Houston author Tracy Daugherty’s “Larry McMurtry: A Life.” This is the first McMurtry biography, probably not the last, and better than most quick turnarounds. The author of biographies on the writers Donald Barthelme, Joan Didion and McMurtry’s Austin pal Billy Brammer, Daugherty has a good grasp of Texas literary history and the cooperation of those closest to his subject. If his prose is unadorned and his approach profoundly middlebrow, well, so was McMurtry’s.

McMurtry was a bit of an odd duck, and not just because, like many creative types raised in rural America, he never truly fit into any milieu: too country for the city, too city for the country. Coming of age in the 1950s, his people were hard-pressed, and hard-bitten, cattlemen and their wives, the men wistful about the cowboy’s passing, the women less so; the themes that fueled his work were those he grew up with. McMurtry was a classic small-town bookworm, a tall, gawky kid with heavy black glasses and a thick head of black hair. He did his chores, but with little brio, and was so unsuited to ranch life his parents gave him no trouble about going off to school in Houston.

I grew up in Central Texas, three hours south of McMurtry’s hometown of Archer City, and I recall the moment when it hit me: Wait, I can write for a living? Daugherty does a nice job tracing McMurtry’s own realization, all but living inside Rice’s Fondren Library, poring over Dostoyevsky and Henry James and Cervantes. By the time he entered graduate school, he had completed his first two (unpublished) novels.

For a writer who invested his every fiber in the physical book — endlessly scouting and reselling them, even running bookstores for much of his life — it’s ironic that, with the notable exception of “Lonesome Dove,” McMurtry achieved far more fame from Hollywood’s versions of his stories than his own. His first novel, “Horseman, Pass By,” drew acclaim; one reviewer brought up Willa Cather. Although the book did not sell particularly well, once Hollywood made it into the Paul Newman vehicle “Hud,” McMurtry’s success was assured. The same dynamic fueled his next hit, “The Last Picture Show,” a little-noticed 1966 novel transformed into a smash 1971 movie.

Daugherty’s book is dominated by three themes: McMurtry’s writing life, his career as a bookseller and his relationships, especially those with women. The first is solid, the second a snooze and the third kind of fascinating. After the failure of a post-undergrad marriage, McMurtry amassed a large and varied group of close female friends, including the actresses Diane Keaton and Cybill Shepherd and the writers Maureen Orth and Beverly Lowry. Some relationships were romantic, others eased into platonic, but the long phone calls and letters he lavished on these women, Daugherty demonstrates, were the core of McMurtry’s emotional life.

Into his 40s, McMurtry concentrated on what he knew best: the tensions between Old West and new, the dying ranches, farms and small towns, what was lost as American life transitioned from rural to urban. Then, after years of demystifying the frontier, he bowed to its allure. “Lonesome Dove,” published in 1985, was a massive bestseller and a landmark television miniseries. It made him an icon — the supreme chronicler of the West, and of the dreams found and lost there.

It also, it appears, took something out of him. One senses McMurtry’s inspirations were already ebbing by 1991, when he underwent a grueling, multi-hour heart bypass surgery. Daugherty makes a compelling case that this was the turning point in his career. Afterward he suffered a crippling bout of depression, staring out windows much of each day, which is when Diana Ossana, a woman he had first spied dining at a Tucson restaurant, enters the frame.

When Ossana, until then an unknown legal writer, began co-authoring McMurtry’s novels, many in the publishing world were aghast. They debated whether she was a gold-digger or the second coming of Yoko Ono. The reality, Daugherty shows, was neither. By taking him into her home — if there was a romantic interest, it was brief — Ossana rescued McMurtry’s career and maybe his life. Once he recovered, they wrote together seamlessly. By the 2000s, spurred by Ossana, McMurtry was more active than ever, which wasn’t always a good thing. The reviews of his late books could be scathing. One prominent critic for the New York Times, Dwight Garner, said that “a lot of [McMurtry’s] stuff verges on being — how to put this? — typed rather than written.”

If the partnership of McMurtry and Ossana left a mixed legacy, Ossana deserves credit as the force behind by far the greatest triumph of McMurtry’s late career, the “Brokeback Mountain” screenplay, for which they shared an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay. She also was involved in a string of McMurtry-derived television movies, not all gems. Variety dismissed one, “Comanche Moon,” as “at times cartoonishly bad.”

I suspect few Texans give a whit where McMurtry ranks as a writer, or whether his hits outnumber his misses. He’s given us so much. He cared about his reputation, but not obsessively. For years his favorite thing to wear was a sweatshirt emblazoned with “Minor Regional Novelist.” I love that. It not only speaks to his innate humility, it’s a sentiment many Texas — and mid-continent — writers can identify with. When he died, I printed up 40 of the shirts myself and gave them to writer friends around town. When I see someone wearing one now, it reminds us both of the long life, and reach, of Larry’s oak.

Bryan Burrough, editor at large at Texas Monthly, is the author or co-author of seven books, including “Barbarians at the Gate” and, most recently, “Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth.” He lives in Austin.

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