Appreciation: Rick Bragg honors Larry McMurtry’s irresistible, inexhaustible stories
He took a beating for being unable to write a sequel that measured up to “Lonesome Dove.”
Then he took a beating, twice, for its prequels.
I never understood why people, critics mostly, were so damn hard to please. Didn’t they know a little bit of Larry McMurtry was better than all of just about anyone else on their best day?
Didn’t they realize that there were some characters from that bleak, beautiful, heartbreaking odyssey of the American West who would always need to cinch up for one more bloody ride?
Of all the remarkable people he conjured out of the Texas dust, my favorite was perhaps the most peaceful, so gentle, in a way, he would not even ride a horse; it was against his religion. He was named, beautifully, Famous Shoes — a Kickapoo scout and tracker who became a kind of recurring bit player in McMurtry’s work, appearing first as an old man in the brooding, vicious sequel, “Streets of Laredo,” then in a prequel, “Comanche Moon.”
In the prequel, he scouts for a troop of Texas Rangers as they ride out to pursue the fearsome chief Buffalo Hump. Mayhem, as always in a McMurtry book, ensues.
A renowned horse thief named Kicking Wolf stalks them and steals the war horse Hector, the mount of the eccentric Ranger Capt. Inish “Big Horse” Scull.
Scull leaves the troop in the inexperienced care of young captains Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call and heads out to reclaim Hector, taking Famous Shoes with him. But out on the bleak plain, midexpedition, Famous Shoes tells Scull he is leaving him and just walks away. He is not afraid of Kicking Wolf; it was just inconvenient. He mostly scouted for the Rangers if they were heading in the direction he already intended to go. So he just quietly disappears.
I remember reading it in a kind of wonder. What a gift it was to be a writer so rich in characters, in story, that he could let such a man just wander off the edge of the page.
Larry McMurtry, the author known for outspoken, brassy characters of the old West who also won a 2006 Oscar for ‘Brokeback Mountain,’ has died at 84.
McMurtry, who died last week, was described in one obit as among the most acclaimed writers of the American experience. A long time ago, he wrote a few kind words to me about a book I wrote, so, of course, I was predisposed to love his work; writers are whores that way.
But he could have called me a low-down, sorry S.O.B and I still would have read pretty much everything he wrote. If the point of a good book is to vanish into it, then he was one of the best there ever was. And I always knew, in a world of wasted time, that I hadn’t wasted a second.
Few writers I have ever read breathed such life into words. He showed us the wisdom of Sam the Lion in “The Last Picture Show” and the rage of Woodrow Call and the broken, wandering heart of Augustus McCrae in “Lonesome Dove.” He made them so real that you ached to turn the page. We just knew, as Lorena left Lonesome Dove with Jake Spoon, that they would never get much beyond the thorn trees. We are haunted by water moccasins and beer joint piano and unclaimed sons. As I read his depiction of the Comanches, I was always aware these were a people slowly vanishing from the face of the Earth, but fighting, always fighting.
None of this will make much sense to you, I guess, if you are not a fan. I am a little tired, in my old age, of telling people what I think they ought to read, and I am probably the worst Larry McMurtry scholar on this Earth. I just haven’t thought much about the deep cultural significance of his work. I was never a student of it, any more than I am a student of chicken-fried steak or peach ice cream.
All I can say is that it was almost dangerous, in a way. I would close his books and wish, hard, that I lived in a world where it was permissible to draw my pistol and whack a surly bartender for dawdling service, then knock back a shot of red eye, fling the glass in the air and blow it to dust and splinters in midair.
We had to have McMurtry, to let us into that world. Often, it was a dark and hopeless place, where the weak were not always rescued by the strong, and perished at the hands of such evil that I sometimes wondered how a nice man from Texas could even dream them up.
There was the bandit Ahumado, who had a full-time man skinner in his entourage, hung his captives from a cage over a canyon without food or water, or tossed them in a pit full of rattlesnakes; he and his henchmen ate Hector, as I recall. There was Mox Mox, the Man Burner, and the murderous Blue Duck, and the Devil Pig, a flesh-eating hog that was believed to be immortal. It was not.
The great Larry McMurtry, who died Thursday, is lauded by authors, screenwriters: “I was entertained by him, which was ALL important,” Stephen King said.
The balance to all this meanness was the true friendship of McCrae and Call, and sometimes just the ridiculousness of living — as when Jake Spoon rides into the dust of Lonesome Dove to announce that he had accidentally killed a dentist in Fort Smith.
McRae considers this and tells Spoon he doubts anyone would hang him for shooting a dentist, even in Arkansas.
I have always been a fan too, because a dog-eared paperback of “Lonesome Dove” was once about the only entertainment I could afford. It was 30 years ago in a one-bedroom apartment in Clearwater, Fla., and I was homesick and broke, living on a dwindling pickle jar of spare change. I had no furniture, no TV, just that book. I read it twice that first week. Then I read it again.
I bought myself a good hardback when I could afford it. It rests in a glass case with others by McMurtry. I guess they will grow more valuable to me, now, as the years go by.
It is hard to pass by them and not think of the people inside those covers, people like Famous Shoes. He is unique among McMurtry’s characters in other ways. He is among the last of his people, yet you don’t see this terrible landscape scar, bend or bury him like so many here.
He just walks away.
Bragg is the best-selling author of 10 books. He lives in Alabama.
The journalist has plenty of space in Alabama, but it still gets lonesome. Luckily there’s Larry McMurtry, Humphrey Bogart and Jerry Lee Lewis.
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