Larry McMurtry, appearing at his 2012 book auction in Archer City. Brandon Thibodeaux

Books

Larry McMurtry Was Among Dallas’ Sharpest Critics, But He Got One Thing Wrong

The prolific author of Lonesome Dove and other works, who died Thursday at 84, was one of Texas' greatest writers and an especially important figure to local book lovers.

Until last year, I’d never read any Larry McMurtry. I had for some reason been under the impression that McMurtry, the “Texas literary giant” and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Lonesome Dove who died Thursday at the age of 84, trafficked exclusively in a kind of corny cowboy bluster: hard men on the range, dusty saloons, teary-eyed musings on the greatness of the Lone Star State.

I can’t recall how far I was into The Last Picture Show, his 1966 novel about teenagers in a small town somewhere between Wichita Falls and nowhere, before I realized how wrong I’d had it. Certainly by the time the high school boys get a little too familiar with the local livestock.

No believer in Texas exceptionalism, McMurtry was clear-eyed—some would say ruthless—about his home state. He was tough on its biggest cities, and Dallas was always in for an especially hard time. As recently as 2013, he wrote that it was “a second-rate city that wishes it were first-rate.”

Here’s McMurtry on Dallas, “one of the uneasiest cities in the country,” from the 1968 essay collection In A Narrow Grave:

Nowhere else in the state does one find so many bitter, defensive, basically insecure people in positions of power. What well-to-do Dallasans are very often convinced of is that they are right. The Kennedy assassination and the Johnson presidency made self-questioners of many Texans, but the citizens of Dallas, now that the city’s economy has survived the assassination, seem almost as self-righteous as ever. Indeed, part of the civic unease may be a result of the city’s own very effective publicity. Dallas was the first Texas city to publicize itself heavily as a center of culture and sophistication, a campaign which seems to have contributed to the confusion of the populace. Such sophistication and culture as Dallas has is mostly hybrid, not indigenous.

But McMurtry wasn’t without affection for Texas and for those things that do make it special. If you look hard enough you’ll even find an appreciation for the weird beauty of Dallas. Yes, Dallas. In another essay from In a Narrow Grave, now dated in a few ways (it was 1968), McMurtry describes passing through the heart of the city:

I had driven along the new Stemmons Freeway and got the commuter’s view of the Big D skyline, with the bright tincan facades of the skyscrapers flashing in the morning sun. They tapered upward, at that time, to the ultimate Southwestern phallus, the shaft with the light in its head above the Republic National Bank. The Flying Red Horse that had once reared unchallenged above all Texas was far below. I drove up Commerce Street, so aptly named, past Neiman-Marcus, its ne plus produce and ultra customers beautifully juxtaposed to the beer joints, wine-bars and shoeshine parlors of South Ervay. I drove out Second Avenue, past the Fair Grounds, a Goodwill store, a D.A.V. store, twenty second-hand furniture stores, numerous used car lots, a Negro picture show, two junk-auto yards, forty hamburger stands and the Kaufman Pike Drive-In. Behind me was where the folk had drifted, to Neiman’s and Second Avenue, South Ervay and the Stemmons Freeway and the thirty miles of cottonpatch suburbia between Ft. Worth and Dallas.

Whatever you thought of his writing, others will attest that McMurtry was an important figure to Dallas book lovers for another reason: his massive book collection, which he moved from the East Coast to bookstores in his hometown of Archer City in the 1980s. McMurtry’s stores must have been a lifeline in years when North Texas endured something of a literary drought. As pilgrimage sites go, the drive wasn’t too bad. A little over two hours each way. And where else were you going to buy books?

He closed three of the stores and sold off many of the books in 2012, and his comments at the time capture some of the cynicism that colors his writing about Texas:

“I don’t even see a new generation of bookseller, I don’t see a new generation of customers. We have virtually no customers under fifty; we have good costumers, but they’re not young. And I don’t know if a new generation of some sort …” [McMurtry] trails off. “If I write the second volume that’s the question I’ll be asking. If it feels like it’s going to die. I don’t see us stopping it from dying. The ‘electronic age’ is what it is, nothing you can do about it.”

Here’s a rare case where McMurtry’s cynicism was unjustified. In the years since his Archer City bookstores closed, Dallas has enjoyed a renaissance in the literary arts, with brick-and-mortar booksellers like The Wild Detectives, Deep Vellum, and Interabang Books leading the way. There is a new generation of booksellers, literary organizations, and readers who actually care about books. And it’s here in Dallas. Who needs to make a pilgrimage to Archer City when you could visit the bookstore where you live?

If McMurtry were to hear such local boosterism about “Literary Dallas,” maybe he’d consider it the latest ill-founded claim in the city’s long-running campaign to “publicize itself heavily as a center of culture and sophistication.” Maybe he wouldn’t be totally wrong.

Regardless, if you’re looking for a way to honor the author’s memory this weekend, pour out your Lone Star and doff your 10-gallon hat. Then buy something from a Dallas bookstore.

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