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Lost in literature


Novelist Larry McMurtry’s quiet life in Archer City speaks volumes about his love of books -- and his loner life in a small town

Los Angeles Times  (01/08/2003)

By Scott Kraft

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.

But that doesn’t mean this Texas literary legend is ready to go out to pasture. He remains stunningly prolific; he churned out four novels during the past year. 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, where he taps out books on a manual typewriter, tends a sprawling secondhand-book store, 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-a-terre somewhere -- just to have better food.” He says, laughing. “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 3-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 -- something he wouldn’t be assured of in any of Texas’ large cities. “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.”

Early success as a writer took McMurtry to Houston and later to Washington, D.C., New York and Los Angeles. 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 writer and intellectual wants to grow 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.”

His cross-genre oeuvre, of course, includes not just classic, emotionally rich contemporary Westerns, but also 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.” 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.

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. With a fan turning slowly on the ceiling and the morning light gleaming through a large window, 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 has 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.

It takes McMurtry just three months, about 120 hours of writing, to finish a book. 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. 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.

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 buys books from friends who have surplus stock and impeccable taste and 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.”

Dealers are generally given the run of the four stores, sometimes working through the night to collect boxfuls of books. A bookstore owner turned up recently, spent the night in Booked Up and spent $6,000 in 24 hours.

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, run by Sue Deen, one of McMurtry’s two sisters. 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 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, when Hollywood decided to shoot the sequel, Texasville, on location in Archer City, movie stars such as Jeff Bridges, Cloris Leachman and Cybill Shepherd massaged the town with money and goodwill, and all was forgiven.

“I think the town feels ambivalent about me,” McMurtry says, sitting on a sorting table in Booked Up No. 1.

At night, McMurtry 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.

McMurtry admits 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.”