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The subtext to a career

Bay Area writer Paul Wilner is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

“The OLDER the violin, the sweeter the music,” Gus McCrae remarks in “Lonesome Dove,” Larry McMurtry’s magisterial western about a cattle drive from Texas to Montana and the havoc wreaked in its path. The silver-tongued devil’s observation is about affairs of the heart, of course, but it could well serve as a description of the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer’s career.

In his latest work, “Books: A Memoir,” McMurtry, 72, takes an elegiac look back at his life as a buyer, seller and lover of the written word -- he boasts that Booked Up, the fabled store he opened in his hometown of Archer City, Texas, a few years back, has 28,000 secondhand volumes of the product we currently hear may soon be eclipsed by Kindle.

Unsurprisingly, McMurtry never felt at home in our nation’s capital, where he opened the first incarnation of Booked Up in 1971.

“Washington is a civil service town in which the stars are not the politicians or the bureaucrats: the stars in D.C. are the journalists . . . ,” he observes. “A world in which journalists are stars is not my world. What depressed me most in D.C. was that the various great houses I was invited to contained so few books.”

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The new memoir is an almost willfully minor piece from a major American writer, albeit one who has long gone far out of his way to avoid a serious consideration of his literary achievement.

In the course of producing more than 40 books, McMurtry’s offhand, engaging voice and the passive, lost-boy narrators with whom the author can too easily be confused have continued to draw us in. And his ability to successfully communicate the emotional lives of women sets him apart -- far apart -- from such heralded male contemporaries as Mailer, Roth and Updike.

Typically, however, McMurtry’s own assessment of his novels is unsparing: “Most were good, three to four were indifferent to bad, and two or three were really good. None, to my regret, were great.” I beg to differ. Taken as a whole, the McMurtry corpus brings us inside the complicated world of human emotions more successfully than any other modern American writer.

Just for the record, no one else has written about Los Angeles as acutely. Perhaps it’s because he comes as an outsider, but in “All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers” and “Somebody’s Darling,” he avoids the temptation to demonize Hollywood as a “Day of the Locust” phantasmagoria, to romanticize its mean-streets corruption, a la Raymond Chandler, or to knowingly depict the “scene” (too many authors to mention).

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“One reason I’ve hung on to book selling is that it’s progressive -- the opposite of writing, pretty much,” McMurtry, a veteran kvetcher, allows. “Eventually, all novelists, if they persist too long, get worse. No reason to name names, since no one is spared. . . . Strong talents can simply exhaust their gifts, and they do.”

As Danny Deck reflects after his first novel has been accepted in “All My Friends”: “I never expect most of my dreams to come true, even though I keep dreaming them, and when one does come true I don’t know how to handle the feelings I have. . . . I had got one dream but something felt wrong in the pit of my stomach. Maybe some other dream was being taken away from me forever. Maybe I wanted that one more.” Such ambivalence appears to be long-standing.

“To the extent that I’m known to the general public at all, I’m known as a novelist whose books make excellent movies -- ‘Hud,’ ‘The Last Picture Show,’ ‘Terms of Endearment,’ ‘Lonesome Dove’ -- and as the author, along with my partner Diana Ossana, of the Oscar-winning adaptation of Annie Proulx’s ‘Brokeback Mountain,’ ” McMurtry writes here, but "[s]ometime in the mid-seventies I began to view myself as essentially a bookseller -- or maybe just a book scout. The hunt for books was what absorbed me most. Writing was my vocation, but I had written a lot, and it was no longer exactly a passion.”

Whether he likes it or not, though, McMurtry was born to write. The accounts of first-edition hunting and encounters with literary eccentrics he offers in this book entertain, but it seems more like a finger exercise than a sonata.

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Perhaps he’s paying the price for the chronic tension in his work between the modern world and the frontier. As good as “Lonesome Dove” is, personally I prefer McMurtry’s work dealing with contemporary mores. There’s a reason it took him more than 20 years of riding the unfamiliar ranges of Palo Alto, Beverly Hills and Washington, D.C., to submit directly to the relentless pull of his ranching past. It’s an enduring irony that the return to the range heralded by the book’s 1985 publication brought him his greatest commercial success.

Texas Ranger McCrae and his buddy W.F. Call’s Mutt-and-Jeff-on-the-range journey is compelling, but “Lonesome Dove” felt like a retreat from the portrayal of the complicated emotional lives of men and women that lies at the heart of McMurtry’s gift.

From Patsy Carpenter in “Moving On” to Emma Horton in “Terms of Endearment” (unjustly derided as a “weepie” after Debra Winger’s gut-wrenching performance in the film version), McMurtry has tuned his instrument well, careful to be faithful to the psychological lives of his heroes -- and most especially, his heroines.

And what a rich set of characters they have been.

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Danny Deck, the young writer in “All My Friends,” McMurtry’s roman a clef about the oddities of literary success. Jill Peel, the animator Danny falls tragically in love with in “Somebody’s Darling.” Duane Moore, whose character arc develops from the boorish footballer of “The Last Picture Show” to bemused middle age in “Texasville” and “Duane’s Depressed” and the priapic explorations of “When the Light Goes,” in which he rediscovers erotic pleasures after becoming a widower.

Emma Horton and her husband, Flap, whose lives we follow from bit players in “Moving On” to the tragicomedy of “Terms of Endearment.” Harmony, the ex-Las Vegas showgirl of “The Desert Rose,” whom we meet again in “The Late Child,” coping with her daughter’s death from AIDS. T.R., his daughter by the woman Deck marries briefly in “All My Friends,” who returns to meet her father in “Some Can Whistle,” a poignant reunion with a tragic ending.

Not to mention the panoply of minor characters McMurtry brings so vividly to life. Pete Tatum, the sad rodeo clown, and Sonny Shanks, the bronc buster, in “Moving On.” Joe Percy, the rueful, gentlemanly screenwriter who appears in several novels. Godwin Lloyd-Jons, the bisexual British academic who is writing a book on Euripides and the Rolling Stones.

Together, they make up the literary equivalent of a stock company of friends whose flaws, fortitude and foibles we come to care about. They are seeking, usually unsuccessfully, for a way to connect in a rootless world. Under the circumstances, McMurtry’s return to Texas to sell books and write in Archer City should come as no surprise.

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“We way up here and it ain’t our country,” one of the “Lonesome Dove” characters says regretfully, in a speech that could serve as the author’s credo. “That was the heart of it -- best to stay in your own country and not go wandering off where you didn’t know the rivers or the water holes.” *


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