The German literary critic Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) surely never set foot in a Dairy Queen, much less one in Archer City, Texas, Larry McMurtry's home town and, disguised as Thalia, the scene of his novels "The Last Picture Show," "Texasville" and "Duane's Depressed."
But when McMurtry returned to Archer City, bought the oilman's mansion he'd admired as a kid, and established the granddaddy of used-book stores, one of the quarter-million volumes he brought with him was Benjamin's "Illuminations," which asserts that oral storytelling is just about dead.
Sipping a lime Dr. Pepper (a local delicacy) and chewing on the implications of Benjamin's thesis for his own profession ("herding words" the way cowboys herd cattle), McMurtry gazed around him. "Before the Dairy Queens appeared, the people of the small towns had no place to meet and talk," he says, "which meant that much local lore or incident remained private and ceased to be exchanged, debated and stored as local lore had been in the centuries Benjamin describes."
Figuring that "the DQ was at least the right tide pool," McMurtry studied the "scattered groups of coffee drinkers, to see whether I could spot a loquacious villager who . . . might be telling a story. And if so, was anyone really listening?"
What did he discover? Well, typically for this amiable, meandering semi-memoir, we never quite find out. Like a classic oral storyteller, in fact, McMurtry keeps dropping the idea he's discussing to high-tail it after the next.
McMurtry's grandparents settled in Archer County, just cleared of Comanches, in the 1880s. He ponders the price of living in such a place, the loneliness and the backbreaking work that left no time for the creation of art. He considers his rancher father, whose struggle to raise "the wrong animal," Hereford cattle, on arid plains suited for buffalo, kept him in debt for 55 years. The elder McMurtry was the willing victim of a cowboy mystique, born in the brief era of open range and cattle drives just after the Civil War, that had lost its validity long before he was born.
"Readers don't want to know and can't be made to see how difficult and destructive life in the Old West really was," McMurtry says, noting wryly that "Lonesome Dove," his attempt to "demythicize" the frontier, instead has been embraced as an "American Arthuriad."
A bookish boy who knew he was "unfit for ranch work because of my indifference to cattle," McMurtry got out of Archer City but carried it with him, even as he became a prolific novelist and screenwriter, hobnobbed with intellectuals and Hollywood types and "herded books" as a collector and dealer. He writes of the heart surgery in 1991 that, spookily, left him a "different person"--an experience echoed in "Streets of Laredo" and "Duane's Depressed."
And finally he comes back to Walter Benjamin, whose best work was fragmentary, "all sparks." This book is like that too: brief illuminations of themes McMurtry has treated at length in his novels. It's like Texas' Red River in summer, braiding itself into random channels, sometimes more sand and cottonwoods than river, but pleasant, as riparian habitat usually is.