Larry McMurtry Essay - Critical Essays

Larry McMurtry American Literature Analysis

As a Texan who writes about Texas, McMurtry focuses on the Western myth of the cowboy and rancher, the cattle drives and the open plains. This myth shapes the self-conception of Texans and other westerners, and through films, books, and television it has also helped form the national self-image. When Larry’s Uncle Johnny was five years old, he sat atop the McMurtry barn and watched cattle drives pass below. During his lifetime, the railroad made drives obsolete, as other machinery would largely replace the cowboy.

Years later, his young nephew Larry would explore in his fiction the meaning of the ending of the Old West, which continued to produce such powerful images in American culture. Larry McMurtry quickly found a national audience for his work, because all regions of the United States had at some time undergone a similar passage from frontier to town to city.

McMurtry closely analyzes the Western myth and its human products. The virtues of his rancher-uncles were great. They were independent men who had a deep sense of honor, justice, and respect for the land. Yet they were also intolerant, inflexible, and deeply contemptuous of anyone who did not conform to their values. They disdained such institutions of civilization as churches, schools, farms, and towns. Schools were jails, Larry’s Uncle Jeff told him, and life was too short and sweet to lock oneself in jail. These men ridiculed any way of life or values but their own. Yet their way of life was dying, and their values were irrelevant to the more complex urban environment; the Old West did not give its people a usable past when they were forced into a new way of life. McMurtry, both victim and interpreter of this void, writes neither simple nostalgic elegies nor debunking exposés of his homeland; he writes instead of his bittersweet love affair with a homeland in which he found it difficult to live and from which he cannot easily depart.

Recurrent themes mark McMurtry’s diverse body of work. Most of his characters have capacities that do not fit their circumstances. The mean-spirited and violent Hud in Horseman, Pass By lived in an age (the 1950’s) that could not make use of his capacities; in an earlier age, his abilities might have made him a Charles Goodnight. In McMurtry’s books, old ranch-country patriarchs struggle to maintain their dignity after their day has passed; strong women cope with weak, purposeless men who cannot find a meaningful role in modern society; young boys, growing up with tales of the old days, see no clear path to the future.

In McMurtry books, one often finds a theme of initiation, as young people pass from childhood into maturity, often introduced into adulthood through sex and death. Loneliness also is central to the life of McMurtry characters, whether they live on a ranch, go with their comrades on cattle drives, or live in towns or cities or on campuses. Marriage does not help end loneliness; failing or empty marriages litter McMurtry’s books.

Women especially find themselves in situations that do not fit their capacities. The frontier or the small town offers them few opportunities outside their home, and their homes are filled with insensitive males living without purpose. When the patriarchy of the frontier collapsed, it was not replaced by a new social order based on healthy gender relations. McMurtry’s strong women have more patience, wisdom, and optimism than men, but they are not socially oriented or educated enough to become feminists; they are earth-mother types.

Horseman, Pass By

First published: 1961

Type of work: Novel

Old rancher Homer Bannon and his stepson, Hud, are locked in conflict between frontier ranching values and Hud’s materialistic values of oil-rich Texas.

Homer Bannon, the old cattleman in Horseman, Pass By, owns a ranch a few miles south of Thalia, Texas. In his eighties, he has spent his life building a cattle herd of exceptional quality. He is a prosperous rancher, whose joy comes in riding over his land among his cattle. Most of his affection goes to his land, not to his nagging second wife, Jewel, or to her son, Scott “Hud” Bannon. He loves his seventeen-year-old grandson, Lonnie, and tries to pass on to him his feeling for the land and for the traditions of the cowboy past.

Hud Bannon is the best and most reckless cowboy in Texas when he wants to be, Lonnie says, but the thirty-five-year-old Hud spends more time boozing and chasing wild women than working cattle. Hud values the land only for the money it can produce: He wants oil wells on the land, not cattle. Homer’s resistance to having holes punched in the land by oil rigs seems to Hud to be mere senility.

Seventeen-year-old Lonnie is narrator of the story. He loves and respects his grandfather, but Homer’s stories of the old ranching days can no longer satisfy the lonely and restless boy. At night, after everyone has gone to bed, Lonnie often climbs to the top of the windmill and sits, looking off at the lights of Thalia and Wichita Falls. The future confuses Lonnie. Neither Homer’s traditional values nor Hud’s materialism seems adequate. Even in love there is confusion. Halmea, the black cook, a strong, wise woman, understands Lonnie’s loneliness and his sexual needs, but there is very little that an older, black woman, half sexual object and half mother-surrogate, can do for a young white boy living in Texas in 1954.

The action of the novel starts when one of Homer’s cows dies. The state veterinarian tests the herd and finds it infected with the dreaded hoof-and-mouth disease. Homer’s entire prize herd will have to be quarantined, then killed and buried. Before the results of the tests come back, a key conflict occurs. Hud wants to sell the herd before it is quarantined. Homer refuses to pass his problem along to some unsuspecting rancher. To Hud, Homer’s moral uprightness is a sign of senility. Another defining conflict comes when the state veterinarian gives Homer the bad news and tries to ease the blow by telling him that he can sell some oil leases while he is waiting to rebuild his herd. Homer says:If there’s oil down there these boys can get it sucked up after I’m under there with it. . . . I don’t like it an’ I don’t aim to have it. I guess I’m a queer, contrary old bastard, but there’ll be no holes punched in this land while I’m here. . . . What good’s oil to me. . . . What can I do with . . . [oil wells]? I can’t ride out ever day an’ prowl amongst ’em, like I can my cattle. . . . I can’t feel a smidgen a pride in ’em, cause they ain’t none a my doin.

Homer’s attitude toward oil confirms Hud’s view that the old man is disintegrating, and Hud plots to take the ranch away.

With the herd slaughtered and buried in huge pits, Homer is physically and mentally exhausted. Hud explodes in frustration, raping Halmea, while Lonnie, beaten, watches. The climax comes when Homer falls and hurts himself. Hud and Lonnie find him writhing in pain. Lonnie goes for help. When he returns, he finds that Hud has shot and killed Homer. Did he shoot Homer to take the ranch or did he, in a flicker of love that he had once felt for the old man, kill him to stop his suffering? Lonnie does not know.

At the funeral, Lonnie feels reconciled to Homer’s death, knowing that his grandfather is going back into the land he loved. He leaves the ranch, knowing that neither Homer nor Hud has left him a usable past. Perhaps he will become a wanderer, like so many of McMurtry’s displaced characters.

The Last Picture Show

First published: 1966

Type of work: Novel

Young people confront conformity and purposeless life in a small Texas town.

Late at night, Lonnie Bannon of Horseman, Pass By would sit on top of his windmill and gaze off at the lights of Thalia, the small town that McMurtry describes in his third book, The Last Picture Show. There are more people in Thalia than on Lonnie’s ranch, but they are equally lonely. People in Thalia in the early 1950’s are caught between the dying countryside and the frightening pull of such booming cities as Dallas and Houston. Many people in Thalia had moved in from surrounding ranches (as the McMurtrys had moved to Archer City). Feeling under siege by the strange ways of the steadily encroaching urban United States, they impose their old ways on the town and try to crush any signs of nonconformity.

The story focuses on Sonny Crawford and his friend Duane Moore. It opens as the boys finish their last high school football game and continues over the following year as they search for a new path for themselves. Sam the Lion, once a rancher, now owns the town’s movie theater, pool hall, and café. He acts as a father-surrogate for Sonny and Duane, and for other boys in need, including Billy, the mentally retarded boy that Sam took in and reared. Billy sweeps out Sam’s businesses. If someone does not stop him, he sweeps to the edge of town and on into the empty countryside, as mindlessly occupied as the rest of the townspeople are as they go about their lives.

Duane dates the town beauty, Jacy Farrow, the daughter of oil-rich Lois and Gene Farrow. Jacy is a narcissistic, selfish young woman whose sense of self depends on the admiration and envy of others. She dates Duane only because he is a handsome high school athlete.

The story focuses mainly on Sonny, an innocent young man much like Lonnie Bannon. During this year, Sonny is initiated into manhood through a sexual relationship with Ruth Popper and through the death of Sam the Lion. Ruth Popper is an attractive woman who has had nearly all the life drained from her when she and Sonny begin an affair. She is the wife of football coach Herman Popper. Herman values a good shotgun more than he does a woman; Ruth tells Sonny, “The reason I’m so crazy is because nobody cares anything about me.” Her affair with Sonny makes her see that she is not crazy and that she is an attractive woman.

Lois Farrow, Jacy’s mother, is another strong woman who defies the mores of Thalia. The beautiful, rich Lois realizes a hard truth that many oil-rich Texans confront: Having money does not fill life’s emptiness. She fights off crushing boredom by drinking, having sex, and spending money. She also enjoys frightening men who cannot cope with assertive women. Both Ruth and Lois are examples of McMurtry characters whose capacities do not fit their situations.

Sonny matures enough to refuse to join the boys in their sexual escapades with heifers but not so much that the future becomes clearer to him. Nor does he mature enough to resist Jacy when she seduces him away from Ruth Popper. Duane, who had been away working in the oil fields, returns, fights with Sonny, and blinds him in one eye. Duane leaves for the Army. Jacy elopes with Sonny in order to be the center of attention. She knows that the Farrows will annul the marriage, which they do, and send her off to college before she wrecks the town.

The outside world intrudes into Thalia in various ways. It pulls Duane and Jacy away. Television provides too much competition for the picture show, and it closes. The closing of the movie theater is yet another disappointment for Sonny, following his loss of Sam the Lion, Jacy, Duane, and Ruth Popper. His final loss comes when Billy, blindly sweeping the street, is hit by a truck and killed. Later that day, Sonny tries to leave Thalia. He goes to the city limits and looks at the empty countryside: “He himself felt too empty. As empty as he felt and as empty as the country looked it was too risky going out into it.” He looks back at Thalia: “From the road the town looked raw, scraped by the wind, as empty as the country. It didn’t look like the town it had been when he was in high school, in the days of Sam the Lion.” Sonny has matured, but not enough either to leave Thalia or to make a new, viable life in it. He returns to Ruth Popper; she takes him back, knowing he will not stay.

All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers

First published: 1972

Type of work: Novel

Young author Danny Deck comes to understand that he must choose between writing about life and living life as a good person and friend.

McMurtry has said that Danny Deck, his protagonist in his fourth novel, All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers, is close to him in his sensibilities. In McMurtry’s words: “It is true that the better you write the worse you live. The more of yourself you take out of real relationships and project into fantasy relationship the more the real relationships suffer.”

In his fourth novel, McMurtry turns from the ranch country around Thalia and begins what has been called the Houston or urban trilogy. Danny Deck, a young student at Rice University, is from the ranching country around Archer City, Texas, but he has cast his lot with an urban way of life beyond the imagination of Homer Bannon or Sonny Crawford. As the novel opens, Danny meets tall, beautiful, remote Sally Bynum at a party in Austin and, immediately smitten, talks her into going back to Houston with him, where they marry. Sally, like Jacy Farrow in The Last Picture Show, is self-centered; she is immune to both Danny’s love and his anger. Within a month, Sally has walked out on him several times. In the midst of his perplexity, he receives a telegram from Random House telling him that it will publish his first novel, “The Restless Grass” (which in plot is similar to Horseman, Pass By). One dream is coming true, even as another may be taken away.

Danny’s life is disjointed, because of both his sudden marriage and his publishing success. He turns to his best friends, Flap and Emma Horton. Emma’s warm, bright kitchen provides him with a sense of order and normalcy, but she cannot keep Danny from feeling that he has been dislodged from his life in Houston and from his friends. Danny and Sally go to San Francisco, where his feelings of displacement grow. Sally, now pregnant, cuts him out of her life. He leaves, moving to a sleazy hotel, where he works on his second book.

Here his crisis deepens. More authors fill San Francisco than Danny knew even existed. He realizes that they cannot all be great and wonders whether he can be. If so, he wonders, at what cost? He meets Jill Peel, an intelligent and honest twenty-four-year-old artist who has won an Academy Award for her animated cartoons. She seems to love him but is sexually unresponsive, for reasons she will not explain. She is, she tells him, no longer a woman, only an artist. She has made for herself the decision that Danny is avoiding: to live for art rather than for friends or lovers.

Danny returns to Texas, where Sally has gone to have their baby. The trip begins a long, exhausting period of sleeplessness, alcohol, and drugs. Danny’s life is out of control: “My life was no life. It was sort of a long confused drive.”

If new ways of life in California have nothing for him, can he return to the ranch country of his ancestors? He visits his ninety-two-year-old Uncle Laredo, who, with his cook, Lorenzo, lives forty-seven miles off the paved road, deep in the harshest and most desolate country that Texas offers. Laredo owns a four-story, twenty-eight-room Victorian mansion, but he camps behind it and cooks out over an open fire. A hundred years earlier, Laredo would have been a legendary rancher; now he is a bitter parody of those men. He hates cattle and will not let them on his place; he raises goats, camels, and antelope. The half-crazed old man forces his ranch hands to occupy themselves by digging holes in the earth. In a parody of Homer Bannon and his love of the earth, Danny says about his uncle: “My own theory...

(The entire section is 6522 words.)