Larry McMurtry McMurtry, Larry (Jeff)

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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Larry (Jeff) McMurtry 1936–

American novelist and essayist.

Larry McMurtry has been called the best regional writer that the Southwest has produced, yet his novels are the antitheses of Shane, The Virginian, and other classics of the Western genre. While earlier "cowboy" novels were idealized epics of courage and nobility, McMurtry demythologizes the West. He uses satire and black humor to portray people who share the basic human experiences of dissatisfaction, frustration, loneliness, and loss.

In his earlier books such as Horseman, Pass By (1961) and Leaving Cheyenne (1963), that loss includes the disappearance of traditions embodied in the "code of the West," the disintegration of the family, and the disillusionment produced by unfulfilled hopes and dreams. Hypocrisy and stagnation in small-town life are exposed in The Last Picture Show (1966), as the adolescents and the adults in a dying Western town attempt to escape boredom and find some sense of identity in their preoccupation with sex. Cadillac Jack (1982) features another of his drifter-hustlers in an aimless quest for the meaning of life.

McMurtry has been faulted for inflating insignificant plots. It has also been noted that, while he poses important questions in his work, he does not follow them through, preferring instead to pursue the entertainment value of a situation. He is consistently praised, however, for his skill in using language to evoke memorable people and places in painstaking, realistic detail. While McMurtry's strongest writing has been about place, specifically, his native Texas, his later books have grown away from that base, especially with Moving On (1970), All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers (1972), and Terms of Endearment (1975), "urban Westerns" which some critics believe may be his most important contribution to changing the Western novel. In his collection of essays, In A Narrow Grave (1968), McMurtry indicated his intention to be free of the subject matter and language restrictions which limited his predecessors. As a result, his innovative approach to the Western novel has indeed flouted tradition, even while he has paid homage to its passing.

(See also CLC, Vols. 2, 3, 7, 11; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980.)

Charles D. Peavy

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Larry McMurtry recently published his first non-fiction book [In a Narrow Grave], a collection of essays on Texas customs, beliefs, and cities. It will be interesting to compare this book with his novels, all of which display a knowledge of and respect for the land. But McMurtry displays no sentimentality or nostalgia for the country, however descriptively he has written of it…. McMurtry has written about life in the country and in the dead or dying little towns from first hand experience. In doing so, he has chronicled what becomes a major theme in his fiction: the initiation into manhood and its inevitable corollaries—loneliness and loss of innocence.

McMurtry's first novel, Horseman, Pass By … examines the initiation theme that is developed further in his later novels. A general feeling of loneliness permeates this first book. (pp. 171-72)

Lonnie's loneliness, however, is different from that of the adults in the book…. [It] is that strange mixture of restlessness, longing, and frustration so typical of the male adolescent. The same train that depresses his grandfather fills Lonnie with wanderlust…. (p. 173)

Lonnie's expressions of discontent and restlessness are, of course, symptomatic of his awakening sexuality, catalyzed by the presence of the brown skinned Halmea…. The primary motivation for Lon's wanting to escape the confines of the ranch, of Thalia itself, is to discover himself through sexual experience…. (p. 174)

Neither Updike nor Salinger has been as successful as McMurtry in describing the gnawing ache that accompanies adolescent sexuality. It is this same awakening sexuality that racks the boys in The Last Picture Show . Sex...

(The entire section is 11,563 words.)