Larry McMurtry Essay - McMurtry, Larry (Vol. 7)

McMurtry, Larry (Vol. 7)

McMurtry, Larry 1936–

McMurtry is an American novelist and essayist. His landscape is his native Texas; within this setting, he treats the problem of the dissolving "worthy tradition" of the past and the lack of a present tradition to replace it. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

[Since] three of his novels—Horseman, Pass By (1961), Leaving Cheyenne (1963), and The Last Picture Show (1966)—have been adapted to film, McMurtry has been responsible for revitalizing the filmic as well as the fiction Western. Equally important, his comments on Hud and his collaboration on the screenplay of The Last Picture Show make him a pivotal figure who demonstrates how an exchange between film and fiction can each enrich the other. (pp. 81-2)

For fiction as well as film, McMurtry recognizes that the continuing vitality of the Western genre entails new modes, but there is, nevertheless, a pronounced nostalgia in his writing. The title of his works—Horseman, Pass By, Leaving Cheyenne, The Last Picture Show, In a Narrow Grave, and Moving On—all suggest an elegy for the desecration of the land, the temporality of an older order, and the death of the patriarchal figure who is its embodiment. In fact, McMurtry claims [in In a Narrow Grave] that all his stories originate with "the heart faced suddenly with the loss of its country, its customary and legendary range."… Hence, his characteristic situation involves metamorphosis, whereby older, magnanimous characters capitulate to or are replaced by their less admirable successors. McMurtry's fiction and likewise the film adaptations make this accommodation for past and present by encompassing, though in varying degrees, the high mimetic, low mimetic, and ironic modes; significantly, originals and adaptations are set in the Fifties, the period McMurtry designates for the shift in modes.

The first of McMurtry's novels to be adapted to film was Horseman, Pass By, renamed Hud…. McMurtry defines [this] film as an example of the low mimetic mode which tends, at several points, toward the ironic…. Mainly, the modes in this film are defined by the characters…. Homer is the film's high mimetic hero. The distance between the high mimesis and irony is established by the blatant contrast between the Moses-like Homer who has "never been wrong," and Hud, who "just naturally had to go bad in the face of so much good." (pp. 82-3)

By contrast, the characters in The Last Picture Show are more consistent vehicles for their modes. Their portrayals, both in novel and film, show that McMurtry is again blending modes, but with a greater emphasis on irony than in Hud. For one thing, both film and novel contain a greater number of flat, two-dimensional characters whose presences heighten the satire and elicit our ridicule. (p. 84)

The modes in Hud and The Last Picture Show, particularly the high mimetic and the ironic, are amplified by the animal metaphors. In both Horseman, Pass By and its adaptation, the animal references to Homer signify his sympathetic response to nature, a trait reinforced by his refusal to drill for oil on his land. In his preface to In a Narrow Grave, McMurtry states that in former times the horseman was "the god of the country"…; hence, Homer's nickname, "wild Horse," indicates his legendary status, which even the cynical Hud recognizes. Homer's parallels with the longhorn cattle sharpen his character: like Homer the long-horns are the foundation of the ranch and a remembrance of times past. When Homer states that "them big horns'll never go through a chute," he is describing his disability to be circumscribed by the limitations—legal, geographical, and moral—of an encroaching society. The novel's animal references to minor characters are diminished in the film and increased at Hud's expense, where they are usually degrading, thus enforcing his role as ironic protagonist. (pp. 84-5)

In both novel and film version of The Last Picture Show, the animal references are more muted, due to the dislocation from ranch to town life and the consequent declining regard for the land…. [The] low mimetic and ironic modes, rather than being conveyed by animal imagery, as in Hud and in the novel The Last Picture Show, are, in the film, conveyed by decreasing scenes on the land and correspondingly by increasing shots in the shabby and squalid town.

Finally, the contribution of filmic techniques to mode remains to be discussed. The cinematography of Hud and The Last Picture Show enhance the low mimetic and ironic modes established by character, metaphor, dialogue, and setting. Hud contains elements of the mimetic and even romance, modes which are almost absent in The Last Picture Show…. The visual counterpart of the juxtaposition of high mimetic and ironic modes appears in those scenes when Hud and Homer are in the truck, Lon seated between them. Not only is Lon the character who mediates between his warring elders, but his placement represents his role as hero of low mimesis and a compromise between two life-styles.

The Last Picture Show more consistently and uniformly develops mode through filmic style…. Sam, who represents the high mimetic mode, is a shadowy presence who disappears halfway through the film. Furthermore, Bogdanovich's direction suggests that the low mimetic mode frequently verges on the ironic. This attitude is conveyed by editing and image. (pp. 85-6)

Film adaptation frequently entails major alterations in plot structure. McMurtry admits that he is more responsive to texture than to structure, a statement which may explain the amorphous quality of his plots. In describing the structure of Leaving Cheyenne [in his book Larry McMurtry], Thomas Landess makes an evaluation which is equally applicable to The Last Picture Show: "No central conflict arises to dominate the action. There are only day-to-day conflicts that come, one after another, to wear down the characters' energy and will to live." Bogdanovich and McMurtry recognize that a leisurely pace and loose structure are inappropriate to film. Therefore, they have made two basic changes. One is to delete some events, such as the trip to San Francisco, and to telescope other events, such as the trip to Mexico, which in the film is composed of consecutive shots of the arrival and departure. Rather than violating the original, these changes increase the claustrophobia and thereby heighten the spirit of McMurtry's reflections on Texas. Lois, for example, makes no shopping or bridge trips, and her consequent inactivity strengthens McMurtry's contention that wealth in Texas is an isolating factor. (pp. 89-90)

The Bogdanovich-McMurtry collaboration and their singleness of vision have produced a landmark in Western films. By their recognition that contemporary attitudes necessitate new styles, notably the low mimetic and ironic modes, that fiction and film can effect a cross-fertilization of the arts, and that the past implies not mere nostalgia or slavish imitation but the obligation to build on a continuing tradition, McMurtry and Bogdanovich have restored vitality and interest to the Western genre. (p. 91)

E. Pauline Degenfelder, "McMurtry and the Movies: 'Hud' and 'The Last Picture Show'," in Western Humanities Review (copyright, 1974, University of Utah), Winter, 1975, pp. 81-91.

Admirers of Larry McMurty will want to extend their close and sympathetic attention to "Terms of Endearment," which moves even further than his last novel, "All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers," from the wide expanses and desolate small towns of western Texas, from the ranchers and waitresses and yearning adolescents who inhabit "Leaving Cheyenne," "Horseman, Pass By" ("Hud") and "The Last Picture Show." They will discover McMurtry trying his hand at what seems, for most of the book's length, to be a kind of comedy of manners centered upon a well-to-do widow of forty-nine who lives in Houston with a Renoir, a Klee and a circle of aging admirers. And for as long as possible they will resist, I imagine, their swelling disappointment….

It is hard to guess what McMurtry is up to. Is his main theme the unfairness of life, the unequal fates of the selfish, vital, surviving mother and the decent, unattractive and helplessly trapped daughter? If so, it remains undeveloped, lost among many distractions. Respecting McMurtry's earlier achievements, one would like to think that the author is taking large risks, that he is deliberately rupturing his tone and collapsing his structure in order to achieve a richer complexity or something like that. But the evidence does not support such a wish. "Terms of Endearment" remains an odd, misshapen, surprisingly amateurish novel composed of disparate parts that never cohere. (p. 4)

Robert Towers, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 19, 1975.

Sometimes, when the air is especially clear, everyday scenes take on a vividness that is more than real. Larry McMurtry's new novel [Terms of Endearment] is like that. It is a meticulous re-creation of 14 years in the life of an American family. It is not, however, either a family saga or an exercise in literary sociology. (p. 37)

[Terms of Endearment] is a novel about time—about the disorder that seeps into human relationships, the progressive closing off of possibilities, the erosion of hope, the loss of illusions about ourselves and those we love, or try to love. It is also, however, a novel about the way that women cope with loss…. They have the strength to accept repeated loss, a powerful will to create order even when the effort seems futile, and the instinctive urge (which they often resent) to give love wherever it is accepted. If these qualities are reminiscent of Virginia Woolf's heroines, it should be added that McMurtry's women also have the grace to demolish sentimentality with irony. (p. 38)

O. B. Hardison, Jr., in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), November 29, 1975.

Terms of Endearment rounds out the trilogy-adventures of a smart set of Houstonian characters begun in Moving On (1970) and continued through All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers (1972). Though time sequences often fall out of order in the three novels, key events and characters are repeated often enough to maintain a continuous theme which, not surprisingly, has three parts: sex and its frustrations, academics and its frustrations, and something like culture and its frustrations which McMurtry has branded Ecch-Texas in a book of essays, In a Narrow Grave.

The author of three novels-made-movies,… McMurtry has moved the setting from the wide-open ranges of the Texas cattle country to the wide-open residential sections of Houston for the second set of three novels. But what is unfortunately revealed by this newest effort is the wide-open spaces of McMurtry's imagination and stockpile of Texas stereotypes. This last book is hopelessly like the previous two, and whatever was fresh and innovative about the others is conspicuously absent from this third novel. (p. 102)

In spite of some loose ends (what really happened to Danny Deck, and what happens to Emma's daughter?), McMurtry seems finally to have capped off the story as a trilogy. The time of the second part of Terms of Endearment is 1971–1976, which suggests either that it is the last chapter to this somewhat uninteresting story, or that McMurtry desires a few more years of breathing room before attacking the next installment. In many ways the novel is lacking. In spite of its four-hundred-page length, the development of the characters is not always satisfying; the situations are often wanting for credulity or for significance, and the dialogue is sometimes "bitchy" and pointless. Occasionally the conflict is mundane and predictable, therefore dull; and time-movement is a problem throughout the book. One of the biggest problems is one which plagues all three of the novels: McMurtry knows too much about literature to allow his characters to be completely unread. The "name-dropping" of famous titles and authors is only a part of the problem; the rest centers in McMurtry's allowing characters to speak about deep philosophical or literary problems which one might expect a Guggenheim Fellow to know about, but with an authority one would find incredible in a Houstonian socialite, even a rich and well-educated one. Also one cannot help but feel that McMurtry wrote all three novels with an eye toward Hollywood's acceptance of them for film, but in spite of his inclusion of Peter Bogdanovich in the book (at a party), one must doubt the possibility of film adaptation for any of the three.

On the plus side, the book reads well. There is humor for those who have not become innundated with McMurtry's lampooning of Texas and Texans; and the story has enough twists and turns to keep the reader's attention in spite of the somewhat trite nature of the conflict. In short, McMurtry has worn out the stereotypes. Aurora, Vernon, Rosie, and Royce are all out of a well-used stockpile, and their shopworn appearance is damaging to the book. Lack of development is not a charge to be laid lightly at McMurtry's door, and one does not wish for another eight-hundred-page monolith such as Moving On. In spite of these lesser efforts, however, McMurtry has demonstrated in his first three novels that he is a talented and forceful writer. One can hope that number seven will be a luckier number than was Terms of Endearment. (pp. 104-05)

R. C. Reynolds, "Trilogy-Adventures Rounded Out," in Southwest Review (© 1976 by Southern Methodist University Press), Winter, 1976, pp. 102-05.