Thursday, 1 April 2021

LARRY MCMURTRY: MY GUARDIAN OBIT

My obituary of Larry McMurtry is online now at the Guardian, you can link to it here. It should be in the paper paper soon. It has been cut considerably, because I over-wrote it, and it was a good edit: keeping the most relevant information and the spirit of what I wrote. So this is not a complaint, but an addition.

Because I knew McMurtry's work well, especially his early novels, which I believe are not only his best but justified the praise (with some caveats) Jim Harrison gave it in his review of All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers, which is my other favourite of his books (I'd like to re-read it and see if my older sentimental self still enjoys what my younger romantic self did). It seemed to me that the caveats Harrison mentioned were what drove much of his later work: his proclivity for writing too much, for extending ideas into series, came from his ability to create characters, and I use the word picaresque. In many ways he was like an 18th century novelist, and he would take characters he liked, and introduce them to other unusual characters he created (and understood) and let that all fly. But this is not part of what was trimmed from the piece; it is the spirit underlying my writing.

There remain a couple of small points that needed explaining, but because of reorganisation weren't. Thalia, the Texas town that is the setting of his first three novels, is a fictionalised version of Archer City; I thought that really needed to be clear right from the start, because, like the Houston books which followed, it showed how he transformed his own experience (for example: his father's running his grandfather's ranch echoes the set-up of Horseman Pass-By (Hud). 

And when he held his Last Booksale, it was from his four remaining Booked Up stores in Archer City. For some reason the Guardian said only one was in his hometown: but I'd actually clarified the point to them. This was important because, in another line excised from the copy, his purpose in putting his store, which grew into six at their peak, in his hometown was an idea to turn it into a Texas version of Hay-on-Wye. I thought the English reference would have kept it in the piece, but what do I know?

One small loss, which I also couldn't understand, was Peter S Beagle from the short list of his Stegner colleagues and friends. Beagle, who is still alive, was a major success at a young age, with the fantasy novels A Fine And Private Place and The Last Unicorn (which is always in best-of lists still) and I See By My Outfit, his tale of a cross-country journey on a motor scooter, well ahead of Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintence. Maybe I should have dropped his middle initial to save space.

The biggest excision was one I expected, because I included a lot of material about Ken Kesey; on the surface very different from McMurtry, but a close friend whose career had some strong parallels until Kesey diverged. If this weren't enough reason, however, the idea that McMurtry then married Kesey's widow, on whom he appears to have maintained a crush for 50 years (he said that at the time Kesey would never let the two of them even talk together!) made it important. Anyway, here is what I wrote: 

... Stanford University’s Creative Writing programme, where classmates included Peter S Beagle, Wendell Berry and Ken Kesey, who attended the Stegner seminars taught by Frank O’Connor (The Last Hurrah) and Malcolm Cowley (Exile’s Return) only because Stegner, who disliked him intensely, was abroad.

...It may not be a coincidence that in Kesey’s first novel, the best-selling One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1962), the main character, played by Jack Nicholson in the Oscar-winning film, is named Randall McMurphy, or that Kesey’s second novel, Sometimes I Get A Great Notion (1964) revolved around a father/son feud within a family logging firm in Oregon; when tt was filmed in 1970, Newman again played the rebellious son.

Let me repeat: I was not surprised these bits got cut: it's an obituary, not a literary analysis. But the idea Kesey simply snuck into the Stegner Fellowship seminars is intriguing, if not crucial to understanding McMurtry. But the teaching by O'Connor, whose novels tend toward the sentimental family saga format McMurtry used, and Cowley, chronicler of the Lost Generation, seemed a fascinating influence.And the parallels I mentioned are delineated here, and I found them convincing. And then there was the Merry Pranksters.

After Stanford, McMurtry taught creative writing for a year at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, then back at Rice. In 1964 Kesey and his Merry Pranksters got in their San Francisico school bus driven by Beat icon Neal Cassady, the Grateful Dead on board for the music, and began a cross-country journey to New York. Tom Wolfe’s chronicle of the trip, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, became a best-seller, including the Pranksters’ arrival to visit McMurtry in Houston. As the bus pulled into his driveway, a tripping Cathy Casamo, also known as “Stark Naked”, spotted McMurtry’s son playing on the lawn. Unclothed, she jumped off the bus to hold him. McMurtry recalled "James, in diapers, had no objection to naked people, and the neighbours, most of them staid Republicans, took this event in stride; it was the Pranksters who were shocked". Far from being harmed, James McMurtry grew up to become a country music star.

McMurtry stayed off the bus. He won a Guggenheim fellowship and produced a seminal book of essays about Texas, In A Narrow Grave (1968), whose themes included some of those reflected in his fiction: cowboys “finding it bitter to leave the land...to the strange and godless heirs they had bred.” 

Again, you can understand, as I did, why that basically had to go, but I did suggest re-inserting one sentence about Kesey's visit, if only because Wolfe made such a thing of it. But I loved McMurtry's own later response to it: it clarified difference between him and Kesey, and I thought the early mention of his son's later career fit well right there. I also love the quote about the bitter leaving of the land, because that theme starts in Horseman Pass By and continues through Lonesome Dove.

But the quote from Leaving Cheyenne stayed in.“Nobody gets enough chances at the wild and sweet”, Johnny McCloud says. They aren't quite the story's last words, though. He then wishes he'd had a Kodak, so he could've captured Molly sitting on the steps in her blue and white dress. So memory stays with us all. 

NOTE: I wrote an essay on Leaving Cheyenne/Lovin Molly a couple of years ago. You can link to that here on this blog 

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