Friday, June 03, 2011

Larry McMurtry, 'Lonesome Dove' and a quixotic trip to Texas

Years ago, back when my biggest concerns were final exams and which film to watch on Friday night, I picked up a whopper of a novel called "Lonesome Dove." And, well, life has never been the same.

Larry McMurtry's sprawling, nearly 1,000-page western saga was such that he managed to both demystify and romanticize the American cowboy of our national imagination. Or, at least the last great cattle drive.

At its heart, that book is the story of the bonds that hold together two unlikely buddies, former Texas Rangers Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call.

And here's a funny story about the fleeting moments of fame. McMurtry won a Pulitzer Prize for the book in 1985. While staying at a hotel on a book tour, the management put up on the marquee "Welcome Larry McMurtry, Author of 'Terms of Endearment.'" He glanced back up at the marquee as he was leaving, the day after he'd won the Pulitzer. It now read: "Fried chicken dinner, $3.99."

McMurtry's fame exploded in 1989 when "Lonesome Dove" was made into a highly successful TV miniseries starring Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall. But he was already a prolific novelist by then, having written, among other things, "Terms of Endearment," "The Last Picture Show" and "Horseman, Pass By," all of which were made into successful motion pictures.

I had something of a religious experience when I first read "The Last Picture Show" and subsequently saw the 1971 Peter Bogdanovich film. I then quickly devoured the other two books McMurtry had written about Thalia at that time ("Texasville" and "Duane's Depressed").

Somebody called the cinematic adaptation of "The Last Picture Show" "the best American film since 'Citizen Kane.'" It's difficult for me to disagree.

I was so taken by it all that I set off on a quixotic quest to meet McMurtry during the summer of 2004. We eventually made our way to the tiny town of Archer City, Texas, where art met real life in a way that still causes chills to run up the back of my spine.

I'd never been there before, but, then again, yes I had -- through McMurtry's work and by watching "Picture Show," which was filmed there. As we made our way from Wichita Falls into Archer City, I started describing the town for my friend Drew Weaver.

"Now, if the books are any indication, the courthouse will be here, and the war memorial will be there, and the Dairy Queen will be here and the picture show will be over here, with a hole in the wall."

Sure enough, there it all was, one stoplight and everything, just as McMurtry had described. It was a delicious moment.

Alas, McMurtry wasn't lurking among the volumes in his huge antiquarian bookstore that takes up much of "downtown" Archer City. All we found was a bored clerk who never even looked up, a fantastic Barry Goldwater political poster from 1964 ("In Your Heart, You Know He's Right") and a pristine first edition of James Reston Jr.'s biography of former Texas governor John Connally that I left sitting on the shelf, a regret I hold to this day.

We thought about stopping at the Dairy Queen that figures so prominently in "Texasville," the one in which McMurtry sat while reading Walter Benjamin. But, I wanted to beat the Dallas/Ft. Worth rush hour traffic (fat chance), so we headed on.

I have to tell you one other aside about "Texasville." I made the mistake of rewatching the 1990 film version, which reunites much of the cast from "Picture Show," up at the lake the night after my 10 year high school reunion. Big mistake.

In the movie, Duane (the ever-likable Jeff "The Dude" Bridges) had gotten old, broke and fat. Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) had lost his mind. Coming on the heels of surfacing memories I hadn't thought about in more than a decade, the film hit me smack dab in the gut. I felt old and depressed.

McMurtry has concluded the "Picture Show" saga with two other novels, "Rhino Ranch" and "When the Light Goes." I read and liked them both, but was sad to see Duane meet his fate. As all good writers do, McMurtry had made Duane a flesh-and-blood character. I felt like I'd lost a good friend.

Larry McMurtry is 75 years old today. My hat is off to him. His books aren't as good as they used to be (his latest memoir on Hollywood felt rushed and was in desperate need of an editor), but several of his earlier works are treasures I keep close to the vest and remember on rainy days. If all you know of him is the TV version of "Lonesome Dove," he's worth a closer look.

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