A Prophet at the Barbecue: Larry McMurtry, 1936–2021

A Prophet at the Barbecue: Larry McMurtry, 1936–2021

A Prophet at the Barbecue: Larry McMurtry, 1936–2021

Three views of a Texas giant.


When I was in my early 20s, I got an e-mail from Barbara Epstein, the cofounder of The New York Review of Books, asking me to write about a series of novels by Larry McMurtry. I don’t remember how Barbara knew of my existence. And I don’t know what qualifications I had for this work—besides being, like nearly 30 million other people, from Texas. But it was my dream to write for the Review, and I was determined to do my very best.

Excitement turned to terror when I realized that The Berrybender Narratives were—how can I put this?—awful. They featured a family of daffy English aristocrats on the loose in the wild, wild West, raided by Indians, ravaged by buffalo, bedazzled by blizzards. The books were so corny that I was at a loss. I knew Barbara was close to McMurtry: A recent book of his was even dedicated to her. I didn’t think it would be smart to kick off my relationship with the Review by saying I hated these books. But it also didn’t seem smart to kick off my writing career by lying—by saying I liked something that I didn’t like. I didn’t know what to do.

In desperation, I started reading McMurtry’s other books. And many of these were not just better than The Berrybender Narratives; they were, to my surprise, masterpieces. His characters were so vivid, his plots so intriguing, his language both so natural and so refined, that I came to regard him, book by book, with something approaching awe. Almost 20 years and thousands of books later, I still remember those books. I’m not a crier, and those books made me cry.

McMurtry wrote about the place we came from: tawdry, pretentious Texas, all those auto spas and outlet malls and chips on the shoulder. In his books I saw a portrait of that place and of its people that I had never seen before. He liked the things I liked about it and loathed the things I loathed—but he had a far broader vision of it than I did. He saw the connection between the postmodern, post-industrial place I knew and the desperation and the violence and the poverty from which it had emerged. By the time I came along, that Texas no longer existed, not even as a memory. Yet I found that, even though I didn’t know I knew this place, I knew this place. Those books did what great literature does: They helped me understand who I was.

Still, that didn’t solve the problem of The Berrybender Narratives. Eventually I saw that instead of pretending I liked them, I could write a bigger piece about McMurtry’s career. Summing up his work, I wrote:

It is astonishing enough that one person could be on a first-name basis with so much of the historical experience of Texas—the original conquest; the destruction of the Indians; the rise of the ranching economy; the end of the open range; the birth of the small towns; their subsequent decline; the emigration from the countryside; the rise of cities. Just one of these themes could have kept a lesser writer busy for a whole career. McMurtry has mapped them all.

That piece taught me something I’ve often thought of when writing biographies: Every great writer has his failures. The bad books are inextricable from the good ones. The great writer isn’t the one whose every utterance is crafted and workshopped and polished. When you read through a writer’s work, you see that the successes depend on the failures; they come out of them. The failures suggest the problems; the successes solve them. And that’s why the great writer is the one who dares to fuck up.

A while later, I received a fax.

“That’s the best piece anyone’s ever written about me,” McMurtry said. “Also the only good piece.”

It was the highest accolade I’d ever received.

My second encounter with McMurtry came a few years later.

I was driving from Houston to Santa Fe, and decided to stop off in Archer City. This town, west of Fort Worth, is famous for only two things: being the birthplace of Larry McMurtry, and the bookstore he had founded there.

For decades, alongside his own writing, McMurtry had also been a “bookman.” To read his essays and nonfiction was to discover something you might not suspect from his novels, which was that he had an encyclopedic knowledge of rare books and had owned bookstores throughout his career. These had culminated in Booked Up.

I wrote McMurtry to say I was coming to town. He was traveling and sent his regrets, but I went anyway, because I was fascinated by the bookstore. I had heard, and then immediately saw, that the word “bookstore” is painfully unequal to Booked Up—and so, to describe its size, is the word “huge.” Gigantic, immense, massive: All fail to convey its scale. It took up nearly the entire downtown of Archer City, building after building of books of a quality I had never before seen gathered in a single place. It was as if a tornado had swept up Charing Cross Road and plopped it down next to a rural Dairy Queen.

In that bookstore was nothing less than the energy that created Texas. I was both appalled and proud to descend from the same people as McMurtry—those ornery, sentimental people I recognized on every page of his books. It wasn’t hard to see the ambition—and also the extremism, the people who didn’t take no for an answer, the people who were gonna be goddamned if they let anyone push them around. For these people, the reasons others might have thought it was a bad idea to import hundreds of thousands of rare books into a hick town in the middle of nowhere were—well—precisely the best reasons to do it. They were the whole point.

The number and quality of the books beggared belief. My partner, who had spent 10 years working on a book about the 19th-century Ashanti, found books on that subject he had never before encountered. But as huge (gigantic, immense, massive) as Booked Up was, it couldn’t contain all the books that McMurtry had brought to Archer City. They had spilled out into every corner of the town. When we repaired to the local diner, we saw a scene that my partner, who is Dutch, found so cinematically American that he could hardly believe it was real. Straight from Marlboro Man central casting, cowboys were hunched over the counter, eating hamburgers, drinking Lone Star longnecks.

I’m from Texas; I didn’t think that was so exotic. What I thought was exotic were the 12 volumes of the Works of Turgenev on a shelf above our red vinyl booth.

A narrative unfolded. The bookish kid, mocked for being interested in things nobody else was interested in, grows up. He moves away and finds success. Then he comes back—and takes his revenge.

Nobody in Archer City was laughing at McMurtry now.

Booked Up wasn’t a bookstore. It was how the West was won.

In 2014, I was spending a few months working in Susan Sontag’s archive at UCLA. I wanted to drive out to Tucson, where Sontag had spent a period of her childhood, in order to get a feel for the place. And I also wanted to finally meet McMurtry, who had been friends with Sontag and was living there.

Driving east from Los Angeles, the swimming pools and palm trees peter out and the desert begins. With its barren mountains and its house-size cacti, Arizona always felt outlandish to me, hard to associate with a symbol of Manhattan like Sontag—hard, even, to associate with modern America at all. In contrast to Texas or California, Arizona still felt like it belonged to itself.

I checked into the Arizona Inn, an elegant resort McMurtry had recommended. It had been built in the days when the town was dotted with tuberculosis sanatoriums. And it was just a few minutes’ walk from Sontag’s house on East Drachman. I walked over to the house, a postage stamp perched on a concrete slab. It was empty; I could go right up to the windows and imagine her loneliness in that place. From the moment she stepped off the train from New York, she didn’t belong. Her sister Judith told me that she hugged the first cactus she saw.

The next morning, I settled into the dining room at the Arizona Inn. At the neighboring tables, fat men in bolo ties were rifling through velvet bags stuffed with jewels.

“Gem and Mineral Show,” Larry McMurtry said.

He introduced himself, and then introduced me to Diana Ossana. They were roommates and writing partners, and together had won an Oscar for Brokeback Mountain.

Diana was blond and attractive and younger. Larry looked and sounded like my grandfather, or any number of my relatives. She was warm; he needed to warm up. She asked about my drive. I said how much Arizona reminded me of northern Brazil and asked, just to make small talk, if they’d ever been to Brazil.

Diana said she’d love to, someday.

“They’re having a few problems with rape,” Larry muttered.

He told me about the three times Sontag had come down to Archer City. I loved the idea of Susan in Archer City. It seemed like something only McMurtry could have pulled off. On one trip, her son bought some cowboy boots from a maker in El Paso, which inspired a comment about how dangerous El Paso was.

“I won’t get off the road there,” Larry said.

We talked about Barbara Epstein, who had died in 2006. I said how grateful I was to her for the chance to write for the Review, and how I knew they had been close. They weren’t, he said. He appreciated her support of his writing, but though he had dedicated a book to her, they had never actually met.

“It just didn’t somehow happen.”

I mentioned how many letters there were from him to Sontag in the archive, but none from her to him. I noticed that people wrote to her, but she didn’t write back. He said this was true, that she could be social for only a few hours, that she always had to retreat to her desk. I said a lot of writers were like that.

“I don’t know that many writers. I knew a few once. They all died.”

We went back to talking about The New York Review. Larry felt that Bob Silvers, Barbara’s coeditor, would have been far less congenial to his writing, and mentioned Bob’s partner, Grace Dudley.

“Lady Dudley was a Yugoslav tart.”

Diana seemed to be worried that he was getting out of hand. “The great thing about Larry is that he will say exactly what he thinks,” she said. “Not that he’s rude—he is not rude—he is just very honest.”

This was true. He enjoyed gossip—“Being a novelist, you like gossip”—and saying outrageous things, but there was also a gruff kindness that, in some way that is hard for me to explain, was the voice of old Texas. Texas people like poking you; they like seeing how far they can go, daring you to flinch. I knew this, which is why his dryness and wryness were as homey to me as iced tea. I felt the relief the exile feels when he gets to speak his own language.

He ordered the vichyssoise and a cheeseburger.

Diana told how she had met him after he had heart surgery at age 55. His brain had changed, and he was plunged into depression. She took care of him and saw his personality return slowly, in a better form. “Before the surgery,” she said, “Larry was kind of a prick.”

I could believe that. I could also believe that someone as talented as he was didn’t suffer fools.

But he was incredibly generous to me. The transcript of our conversation that morning ran to nearly 30,000 words. That was just the beginning. After lunch, Larry and Diana showed me around Tucson. We went to their house, where I met Larry’s wife, Faye Kesey, who had been married to Ken Kesey. Larry had a crush on her for 40 years, and when Ken died, Larry proposed.

The next morning, when I was due to drive back to Los Angeles, they insisted on meeting for breakfast. Larry, Diana, and Faye came to a little golf club.

Larry was in his late 70s and didn’t look good; the talk was of wrapping things up. He gave me a copy of his forthcoming novel, The Last Kind Words Saloon. It would be his 50th book. “Fifty’s a good number,” he said. “Fifty is enough.”

When I got in the car, I found myself crying once again. I lived in Europe. He lived in Tucson. I knew, as I pulled out of the parking lot, that we wouldn’t meet again. And I felt overwhelmingly lucky to have had that time with him. No words of affection had been exchanged, and after two days, it seemed presumptuous to call him a friend. But I knew that the reason he had taken all that time for me was because of my essay all those years before. He’d felt understood by me. And over that weekend, I felt understood by him. When I got back to Los Angeles, I opened the book and saw an inscription: “For Ben. A brother.”

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