Larry McMurtry’s ‘Literary Life’

  I’ve read only one of Larry McMurtry’s novels, “The Desert Rose,” which is set in Las Vegas. But I’m an avid reader of his nonfiction.
  McMurtry is one of the great living men of letters. He knows the book business, having owned used bookstores for several decades. He knows about writing books, having authored more than 40 of them, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lonesome Dove.” He knows about making movies. Several of his novels have been turned into films (“The Last Picture Show,” “Terms of Endearment”), and he’s written a number of screenplays, including the Oscar-winning “Brokeback Mountain.” He even knows a fair amount about the history of the American West, having studied and written about cultural icons such as Crazy Horse and Buffalo Bill.
  So, when McMurtry writes about his experiences, the result tends to be informative and interesting. Probably the best of McMurtry’s nonfiction works is 1999’s “Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen,” a memoir of growing up in rural Texas that sprawls into a range of other areas of his life. More recently, McMurtry has embarked on a three-volume memoir of the three essential aspects of his career: the book trade, the writing life and the movie business.
  He started with 2008’s “Books,” a breezy account of his experiences as a book scout and bookstore owner. McMurtry is a book collector of some renown, and he’s owned used bookstores in Washington, D.C., and his hometown of Archer City, Texas. The latter, which I have visited, occupies four different buildings in the middle of the tiny rural town more than an hour outside Dallas. The stock totals in excess of 500,000 volumes.
  “Books,” however, is not a great book. Although perhaps of interest to serious book collectors, who will enjoy the anecdotes about various rare books McMurtry has acquired over the years and his encounters with legendary bookmen, the average reader has to be bored to tears by this compendium of inside baseball.
  The second volume in McMurtry’s trilogy is the just-released “Literary Life,” focused on his life as a writer. “Literary Life” is superior to “Books,” but not by a lot. McMurtry discusses the genesis and development of many of his most well-known books. He also talks about some of his writer friends, including Ken Kesey, Susan Sontag and Dave Hickey, who lives in Las Vegas and teaches at UNLV.
  But “Literary Life” is breezy to a fault. At a slight 175 pages, it’s clear that McMurtry did not put his heart and soul into this memoir. There are numerous instances where he recalls some incident or person from his life but can’t remember all the details. Instead of making a few phone calls to check his facts, he lazily leaves a gaping hole in his story. For example, while discussing a play written by a Texas writer named Grover Lewis, he concludes: “He had also, by the time I met him, published a play called ‘Wait for Morning, Child,’ a Carson McCullersesque drama which I believe was performed somewhere — I’m not sure where.” My guess is that somebody knows where the play was performed, and it wouldn’t have been too difficult for McMurtry, or his colleagues at Simon and Schuster, to find out.
  Still, I enjoy McMurtry’s nonfiction voice. It’s sophisticated yet laid back and easy to digest. Even if he’s not mining the deepest reaches of his soul, he’s offering bits of history and wisdom worth being immortalized between covers. Here’s one:
  “I had expected to be thrilled when I received my first copy of my first book, but when I opened the package and held the first copy in my hand, I found that I just felt sort of flat. There it was. I had made it into the ranks of the published. … But I felt no great surge of satisfaction. I learned then and have relearned many times since, that the best part of a writer’s life is actually doing it, making up characters, filling the blank page, creating scenes that readers in distant places might connect to. The thrill lies in the rush of sentences, the gradual arrival of characters who at once seem to have their own life.”
  Another quibble with “Literary Life” can’t be blamed on the author. The book has a number of typos, including some basic misspellings that could have been avoided with the simple deployment of spellcheck. I know the recession has been tough on the publishing business, but I have to believe Simon and Schuster, among the world’s largest book publishers, could spring for a copy editor to support one of the premier authors in its stable.
  The third in McMurtry’s series of memoirs will focus on Hollywood. It’s sure to contain the juiciest gossip of the three volumes. I’m sure I will buy it and read it, but I also expect it to be less filling than it should be.

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