The great novelists, Larry McMurtry believes, write their masterpieces in the prime of life. And at 66, he figures he’s past his prime. The powers that inspired “The Last Picture Show” and “Terms of Endearment” are in decline. By his own reckoning, the curtain fell on his great period 17 years ago, with the publication of “Lonesome Dove.”
McMurtry remains stunningly prolific; he churned out four novels during the past year, the last two at a gallop. But some time ago he lost interest in reading fiction, preferring to spend his evenings with European history and British diaries. He doesn’t travel much anymore, either. He stays put in windblown Archer City, Texas, where he taps out books on a manual typewriter, tends a sprawling secondhand bookstore, breakfasts at the local Dairy Queen, hosts out-of-town friends on the weekends, complains about the dearth of decent restaurants and, as one of those friends puts it, “lives in his own head.”
Is Larry McMurtry, the premier Western novelist of our generation, riding quietly into the sunset? “I’ve been feeling a bit restless lately,” he says, a sure hand resting on the wheel of his dusty Cadillac, odometer clicking past 104,000, as he stares into a pastel Texas twilight. Passing by at the speed limit is the stark prairie that inspired an adventure story about a couple of old-timers leading a cattle drive in “Lonesome Dove” and a gloomy tale about adolescents trapped in a small-town vise in “The Last Picture Show.”
“I might get a pied-à-terre somewhere--just to have better food.” He laughs. “The real problem here is food. I’ve lived in places where you just normally go out to eat. I work pretty hard, and it’s nice to go out and have a reasonable dinner. You’ll see what the prospects are tonight.” He pauses while that sinks in. “It’s grim.”
McMurtry lives in a majestic three-story home a few doors down from the single-story house where he grew up and not far from the high school where he graduated in 1954 among a senior class of 19. He moved back to Archer City, population 1,848, just five years ago.
He keeps mostly to himself, and locals know better than to try to engage him in chitchat. “He’s a very conservative-type feller,” says Max Wood, the town’s 68-year-old mayor. Wood has known McMurtry since high school but doesn’t consider himself a close friend. “Larry was always the type of person who was more of a loner.”
In fact, Archer City seems mostly indifferent to its literary son. “They just let him be,” says Sue Deen, one of McMurtry’s two sisters, who runs a local feed store that also sells her brother’s books. “He’s just part of who lives here. No one bothers him, which is how he wants it. He likes his privacy.”
Early success as a writer took McMurtry to Houston and later to Washington, D.C., New York and Los Angeles, where he had a home in Santa Monica and an apartment in Sherman Oaks. Then a heart bypass in 1991 drove him into a depression, from which he slowly recovered at the home of a friend in Arizona. The decision to return to Texas, perhaps for good, was made because of books--not the books he was writing but the antiquarian book business he has nurtured on the side for years.
The repository for those titles is Booked Up, which McMurtry refers to informally as “booktown.” At last estimate--no one counts them and there’s no database--about 500,000 volumes were squeezed onto the shelves of four Booked Up stores, all within half a block of the town’s lone blinking red traffic light. Finding and tending those books has become his all-consuming passion. He buys for the burgeoning shelves, a pasture on which book dealers and book lovers from around the world come to graze.
But just how long can this urbane soul remain happily hunkered down in small-town Texas? Is this the place where a famous Western writer and intellectual wants to grows old?
Since the publication of the diaries of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark nearly two centuries ago, the West has been mined for myth and adventure by many an American writer. Mark Twain and James Fenimore Cooper were among the earliest to capture its wild and brutal outlines. Larry Jeff McMurtry became the dominant voice in Western literature soon after the publication of “Horseman, Pass By” in 1961. That novel became the basis for the movie “Hud,” starring Paul Newman and featuring Oscar-winning performances from Patricia Neal and Melvyn Douglas.
“If anybody had any sense,” says the writer Carolyn See, a professor of English at UCLA, “they’d throw out ‘Moby Dick’ and put ‘Lonesome Dove’ in the center as the great American epic novel. No question about it. His heroes in that book are just terrific. His women are just terrific. And he sustains it for 800 pages.”
Her UCLA colleague Blake Allmendinger, a specialist in Western literature, says “Lonesome Dove,” which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1986, “is the only long novel I’ve taught in my whole career that students were happy to read.”
The literary landscape of the West today is much richer and more eclectic than when McMurtry began his career. Many of today’s gifted Western authors are chroniclers of discrete interest, writing about the experience of Native Americans, Chicanos, Asians and other communities in the West. Others have tapped into the au courant vein of environmental literature. But only a few, such as Cormac McCarthy (“All the Pretty Horses”), Thomas McGuane (“Nothing But Blue Skies”) and Annie Proulx (“Close Range: Wyoming Stories”), have taken on the grand Western ethos. And none has been able to match McMurtry’s ability to bring the West to large, popular--as well as literary--audiences.
Neil Gordon, the literary editor of Boston Review, writing admiringly of McMurtry’s latest book, “Sin Killer,” in the New York Times Book Review, said McMurtry “is a resident of that uncomfortable territory of American letters that lies between the popular and the literary.” His cross-genre oeuvre includes classic, emotionally rich contemporary Westerns as well as ruminative works of nonfiction and scholarly essays in the New York Review of Books. Also sprinkled among his more than 30 books, though, are readable but disappointing sequels that have a cranked-out feel.
McMurtry has always been something of a contradiction. He was born a few miles from Archer City on a cattle ranch, the son and grandson of ranchers. But, unlike a great many Texas writers, he doesn’t romanticize the West. In fact, he sometimes seems repulsed by it. (“I love the plains but I hate cows and horses,” he says. “And I regard ranching as a form of slavery.”)
“It’s that strong attraction-repulsion that characterizes most of his work,” says Mark Busby, professor of English at Southwest Texas State University who has closely studied McMurtry’s work for years. “That stems from being an intellectual in Texas in the ‘60s, a bookless man in a bookless state.” That bookless state has changed a good bit since the ‘60s, and McMurtry is one of the reasons.
“Larry McMurtry will no longer sign books in this store--nor books sent through the mail. Forty years of constant signing has had a bad effect on both his signature and his disposition. Read to enjoy. Those unable to do without a talismanic scrawl may try Three Dog Books.”
--Handwritten sign posted in Booked Up Store No. 1. Signed by Larry McMurtry.
His day usually begins at 6:50 a.m. with 10 minutes on the treadmill in his basement gym. That tuneup is his only nod to cardiac health. “That’s all I can tolerate,” he says. “I’m on that treadmill from 6:50 until 7. Bored, even at that hour.” He lives on the sunset side of Archer City, in what he amusingly calls the silk-stocking district. His house is one of the town’s largest, a tan brick structure with a large shaded front porch and surrounded by mature mulberry, poplar and ash trees. It rests between the clubhouse and the ninth green of Archer City’s private golf course (though McMurtry isn’t a member).
For years the house was owned by a wealthy widower whose only son had been killed in an oilfield accident. When he was a youngster, McMurtry remembers, a light would burn in a second-floor room of the house until late at night, and he always assumed the owner was reading--a rare kindred spirit in love with books in 1950s Texas. McMurtry never learned if the man really was a reader, but in 1988, when the owner died, McMurtry bought the house.
Inside is McMurtry’s personal collection of 25,000 books, arranged by subject--Russia, English politics and so on--on shelves that rise 14 feet from the oak floor to the ceiling. The movie and Western collections line the walls of a small guesthouse, a few steps from the back door. “I have all the books I might need right here,” he says. “I don’t like libraries.”
At 7:30 a.m. each day, he settles into a chair at one end of a 25-foot oak table, one of three he acquired a few years back from the Hollywood public library. With a fan turning slowly on the ceiling and the morning light gleaming through a large window behind him, he pecks away for 90 minutes on a manual Hermes 3000 typewriter. His steady pace: 10 pages a day for a first draft; 20 for a revision. “As I get older, I get faster,” he says. “Partly it’s just fluency. To me, writing fiction is always about momentum. Momentum is more important than finesse. Finesse is what you do on the second or third draft. Getting the story out is what you’ve got to do first.”
He’s just finished the fourth and last book of his Berrybender tetralogy. The first of that series, “Sin Killer,” released in May to mixed reviews, introduced the Berrybender clan, a wealthy English family exploring the West in 1832 by boat up the Missouri River. The second part is due out in early May. McMurtry originally had wanted to write a nonfiction book about the river, the superhighway into the West in the early 19th century. “But I couldn’t get a boat to explore it. It was too bureaucratized, with all those dams and locks and stuff. So I turned all that into a novel.”
Now he’s writing a book of nonfiction about six notable massacres of the West, which occurred in the mid- to late-1800s in California, Utah, Arizona, Kansas, Montana and South Dakota. In recent months, he has penned essays for the New York Review of Books on the diaries of James Lees-Milne and the work of novelist Thomas McGuane. And he’s also finishing several teleplays and screenplays based on his work and that of others.
McMurtry has never been a slow writer. It takes him just three months, about 120 hours of writing, to finish a book. Some critics complain that he’s too prolific, that his books would benefit from another couple of turns through the Hermes. But McMurtry doesn’t read those, or any other, reviews. And he takes a dim view of writing revisions, feeling that too many revisions ruined “Horseman, Pass By.”
Still, he’s his own harshest critic, and after four decades in the business, he believes his powers as a fiction writer are in decline. “Fiction is tricky,” he says. “It depends on a very complicated ability both to focus emotion and imagination. Constructing a long novel is a really demanding business. I don’t think there have been many novelists whose best work has been written after they were 60. This is my own theory, but if you look at the great novelists, they write competently over a long lifetime, but their masterpieces tend to fall within a short period.”
McMurtry’s rich period, in his view, was from “All My Friends Are Going to be Strangers,” published in 1972 when he was 36, through “Lonesome Dove,” which appeared in 1985 when he was 49. (“Lonesome Dove” was later adapted as an Emmy Award-winning miniseries starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones.) That period included the books “Terms of Endearment” and “Desert Rose.”
After 90 minutes at the typewriter, he usually drives downtown and opens a couple of his stores for the early-bird shoppers. Then he heads to the edge of town and the local Dairy Queen, which he featured in “Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen,” a collection of semi-autobiographical essays that had McMurtry hanging out at the DQ, reading the German philosopher Benjamin and guzzling lime Dr Peppers. (And you thought there was nothing to do in Archer City.)
Most mornings he orders biscuits with gravy or jam and reads the Wichita Falls Times Record News, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the New York Times. While he’s eating, the three women who run Booked Up arrive for work at Store No. 1, a former Ford dealership. McMurtry turns up there by midmorning and waits for his scouts, who haul in books they’ve collected, mostly from remainder warehouses in Austin and Dallas. He pays them $3 a book plus gas money, and then he prices the books, by hand with a pencil, at $15 and up. He also buys books from friends who have surplus stock and impeccable taste, such as independent bookseller Ian Jackson in Berkeley. And he occasionally travels to look over private collections; a few months ago, he hauled back a treasure trove of Caribbean literature from Kansas City.
“If I’m not buying, it’s immediately noticeable,” he says. “If I haven’t bought anything in three weeks, I feel very thinned out. Very thinned out.” Booked Up doesn’t have a computer, but McMurtry trolls through the invoices daily. “I pretty much know what we’ve got and what we don’t have,” he says. A busy weekend may bring several hundred customers, including professional book collectors but also book lovers. McMurtry’s theory is that people will travel, even to a place as remote as Archer City, two hours drive northwest of Dallas, if there are enough books and, especially, enough good ones. “The challenge is not to get a million or 2 million books,” he says. “It’s to keep the stock junk-free. And that’s my job. Junk control. Buying is the equivalent of breathing in the secondhand book business.”
Elizabeth White, who works at the Texas Medical Center Library in Houston, was one of a dozen customers on a recent Monday. She was on a busman’s holiday, staying at the Lonesome Dove Inn, a bed-and-breakfast run by McMurtry’s friend, Mary Webb. White spent two days collecting medical books but also left with two armloads of books on cooking, her hobby.
Dealers are generally given the run of the four stores, sometimes working through the night to collect boxfuls of books. The owner of a new store on Madison Avenue turned up recently, spent the night in Booked Up and spent $6,000 in 24 hours. Many of McMurtry’s customers are longtime friends in the book business, such as Lou Weinstein, co-owner of Heritage Book Shop on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, who comes about once a year. “He has a perfect instinct for the right books and the right people,” McMurtry says. “He knows exactly what he wants and the condition it has to be in. He is one of the best high-spotters in the world. He always has the high spots in any genre.”
What McMurtry doesn’t sell is copies of his own books. “It’s an endless nightmare selling my books,” he says, “because I’m constantly pestered by people who want me to sign them, want me to talk about them or something.” McMurtry’s books can be purchased at only two places in town. One is Stirrup Feed, where McMurtry’s sister also sells coffee, wind chimes, Texas knickknacks and “equine products and accessories,” according to the sign out front. The other place is Three Dog Books, which is run by Julie and Cody Ressell. Julie worked at Booked Up for a few years until McMurtry set her and her husband up with their own store as a wedding present.
McMurtry’s relationship with the town has had its ups and downs. “The Last Picture Show,” which rendered adolescent alienation against the black-and-white backdrop of a small Texas town in the 1950s, turned a spotlight on Archer City, but not the kind that a Chamber of Commerce might like. The anti-McMurtry talk grew so heated that, at one point, he wrote a letter to the local paper, challenging anyone to debate him at the legion hall. There were no takers. Later, the characters from “The Last Picture Show” turned up in a sequel, “Texasville,” all silly and rich from the oil boom of the 1970s. But when Hollywood decided to shoot the movie on location in Archer City, massaging the town with movie stars such as Jeff Bridges, Cloris Leachman and Cybill Shepherd, and with money and goodwill, all was forgiven.
“I think the town feels ambivalent about me,” McMurtry says, sitting on a sorting table in Booked Up No. 1.
He has a full head of hair that is gray-turning-to-silver and old-fashioned glasses. He wears a perpetual frown, but it hides a refreshing directness and a wry sense of humor. “I’m not the most-loved citizen, that’s for sure,” he continues. “I bring a lot of strangers to town. And I don’t think people are crazy about these bookstores. Of course, if they weren’t here, there would be nothing here--just boarded-up, empty, desolate-looking buildings--and it would look more like a dead town than it does now. I think people recognize that. But they’d rather have the five-and-dime and the hardware store back.”
(“We feel fortunate that at least we have Larry in those buildings,” Mayor Wood tells me later. “Small cities like us take whatever business we can get.”)
The Ressells, Julie and Cody, themselves relative newcomers to town, say McMurtry’s reserve keeps him at a distance from most of Archer City. “People around here spend hours and hours shooting the bull,” says Cody, a bearded sometime musician. “Larry doesn’t hang out and shoot the bull.” Adds Julie: “Some people also think his books are dirty. I hear that a lot.”
One of his best friends in town is Webb, proprietor of the Lonesome Dove Inn and a sister of one of McMurtry’s high school classmates. I ask Webb if McMurtry was popular in high school. “Oh, he was as popular as you can be in Archer City without playing football,” she says. “But we knew he was special. He got straight As and won literary prizes.”
After lunch, he’ll take a nap, run errands and spend a little more time at the bookshop. At night, he rarely goes out, preferring to munch on salami and crackers and settle into his soft white sofa to read. At the moment, he’s working through a biography of Nazi minister Albert Speer and the memoir of novelist Jim Harrison while also exploring the nine-volume diaries of Lees-Milne, a socially well-connected architectural historian who wrote from before World War II until his death in 1997.
What McMurtry doesn’t read anymore is fiction, despite having reviewed hundreds of novels earlier in his career for various publications. “Won’t read it at all,” he says. “I’ve read like a thousand novels, but I don’t want to read fiction anymore. If I do, it’s always 19th or 20th century fiction. George Eliot. Tolstoy, Balzac. I can’t read contemporary fiction.”
And why not? “Just not interested,” he says, shrugging his shoulders.
We arrive at McBride’s restaurant on the outskirts of Wichita Falls in the gathering dusk. The restaurant has a 1970s feel, with low tile ceilings and dark wood paneling and a wicker basket of plastic-wrapped crackers and melba toast on each table. This evening it hums with friendly voices, crying babies and the clink of glasses. McMurtry is wearing his daily work outfit--a faded blue long-sleeve shirt over a polo shirt, worn blue jeans and blue New Balance jogging shoes.
He is good company, spinning stories about his life and his Hollywood friends. (“I just talked to Diane [Keaton] yesterday,” he says at one point. “She’s just bought Peter’s [Bogdanovich’s] old house.”)
Unlike many serious writers, McMurtry has moved easily among the worlds of literature, movies and television. He was the first non-New Yorker to serve as president of the literary organization PEN and spent several years as a university lecturer. But he also has written 70 screenplays and teleplays, including “The Last Picture Show,” which he co-wrote with Bogdanovich and which won screenwriting honors from the New York Film Critics Circle and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
“I don’t see why writers complain about Hollywood,” he says. “The process has never been frustrating for me. I take a mature view: It costs me two typewriter ribbons and maybe $1,000 to write a book. Movies are a big business. If you try to pretend it’s high art, you’ll be disappointed.”
He was trying to explain that recently to Annie Proulx; McMurtry and his friend Diana Ossana have written a screenplay based on Proulx’s New Yorker short story “Brokeback Mountain.” “What I had to tell her was that no matter how much she theorizes it, no matter how good it looks on paper, you never know what’s going to happen until you get the real actors and it starts shooting. And then it may be glory or it may be junk. Hollywood is what it is--an uncontrollable process which only great geniuses, like Hitchcock and a few others, can control a certain portion of by relentless ruthlessness. Most people can’t control it.”
McMurtry and Ossana wrote the four-hour miniseries “Johnson County War,” starring Tom Berenger and Burt Reynolds, which aired as a Hallmark Channel special last year. He’s peddling a couple of movie projects, including Proulx’s story and two others, co-written with Ossana and based on his books “Anything for Billy” and “Boone’s Lick.” He’s also shopping a script for “White Boy,” a true story about the only white player in the old Negro baseball league who happens to be mayor of a neighboring Texas town.
McMurtry orders a Cutty Sark and water, a salad and the catfish. He’s fully recovered physically from his quadruple bypass surgery 10 years ago. He has no dietary restrictions, and a recent cardiac checkup found him in perfect health. But the bypass, which followed a mild heart attack, left a permanent psychological scar. “It was a breaking point in my life,” he says. “A watershed. I’m a different person. It was the most interesting experience of my life and the most ambiguous. Very transformative.”
The first two months of recovery had gone well, and McMurtry plowed happily through five volumes of Virginia Woolf’s diaries and 12 volumes of Proust. But when he attempted to return to his former life--running the bookshops, traveling and writing--he pulled up lame. He lost interest in reading newspapers, which had been a constant in his life. He still wrote fiction, but it felt, he has said, “like faxes I received each day from my former self.” What he couldn’t do at all was read for pleasure.
He stayed with Ossana in Tucson, found a good therapist and slowly inched back from the abyss. It took more than two years for him to rediscover the pleasure of reading and another year before he recovered his interest in the rare-book trade.
“Now,” he says, “I feel like I’m as much myself as I’m likely to ever be again. Maybe 75% or 80% of my former self.”
Have there been any positive side effects? “Well, women think so,” he says, chuckling. “I think I’m less Type A. I was definitely humbled by that experience. But everyone is. What could be more humbling than to die for five hours and then be jump-started back to life like a dead car?”
Before his surgery, Ossana says, McMurtry was “like a shark. He only moved forward, never looked back. Everything was about right now or the future. The surgery stopped him in his tracks. He became very ruminative and quiet. Now I think Larry has looked about as inward as he wants to look.”
Divorced since 1966, McMurtry maintains close friendships with a number of women. He talks daily by phone with his screenwriting partner Ossana, who has a room of her own in his Archer City house. “Larry is more of a connoisseur of women,” Ossana says. “He adores them and finds them fascinating. He’s bored with men. His magic with women is that he’s able to maintain friendships with them.”
On that topic, McMurtry says only: “I have no girlfriend, although I am a great admirer of Nigella Lawson,” the best-selling British cookbook author and sultry TV show host. “I just went out and bought all of her books today.”
When McMurtry moved back to Archer City, he planned to write several nonfiction books while surrounded by his library for reference. But another force driving his decision to return was the deep current of change in the secondhand book trade. His passion for the book business runs deep, rooted in his bookless childhood. He was always a voracious reader, of course. But, by nature, he’s also a treasure hunter. In the antiquarian book world, a good scout need not be able to quote Proust. But he needs to know the misprints and misspellings that separate a merely old book from a priceless find.
As he contemplated a move back to Texas, an explosion of book fairs across the country had largely supplanted secondhand bookshops, even some of the country’s most famous family-run ones. The Booked Up store that McMurtry and his business partner Marcia Carter had started in 1970 in Washington, D.C., was becoming a victim, like so many other urban bookstores, of declining sales and rising rents. And McMurtry concluded that if he were ever going to have a profitable, large bookstore, it would have to be in Archer City, where real estate is relatively cheap and “we can sell books, lickety-split.”
If McMurtry’s life is unexciting in Archer City, it is comfortable. He’s within driving distance of Austin, where his son, James, a singer-songwriter, and his 12-year-old grandson, Curtis, live. James’ first rock album was produced by John Mellencamp, who had heard some of his music when McMurtry wrote the screenplay for “Falling From Grace,” Mellencamp’s feature film debut. James, who has just finished his sixth album, doesn’t have any interest in the bookstores. But McMurtry is hoping that his grandson will.
Already, McMurtry sees a collector’s touch in young Curtis. “He has great book sense and he’s a completist collector,” McMurtry says with pride. “If he collects anything, he wants it all. He wants every video of the [Mary-Kate and Ashley] Olsen twins. And he studies the differing configurations of the goggles of various superheros. He’s got the touch.”
But whether Curtis will share his grandfather’s passion for the book trade remains to be seen. “It’s almost unknown for a great American bookshop to survive its creator,” McMurtry says. “And I don’t think I want my grandson to live in Archer City all his life just to run his grandfather’s bookshops.” He laughs. “But he might pack away the best 20,000 books in the library if he wants to have a bookshop in San Francisco. Or if he doesn’t, he doesn’t. He can sell it.”
McMurtry admits he’s only half-serious about being restless. He’s intellectually restless, but “it’s a question of being trapped in one’s own creation,” he says. “Many, many people are. I really love my booktown. I think it’s a very worthwhile thing to do. And if you believe that--and I do believe that--you’ve just got to do it.”
He grows weary of the social narrowness of a small town, however. “I don’t get tired of the expansive nature of the bookshops, and the people they bring here, including a lot of dealers I have known for decades,” he says. “I don’t get tired of the book trade, just of Archer City. But right now, I’m kind of trapped.”
And still scanning the treeless horizon for a decent meal.
Scott Kraft is the national editor of The Times. He last wrote for the magazine about William F. Buckley.