Larry McMurtry McMurtry, Larry (Jeff) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 dominates their thoughts and their conversations, and it is the motivation for many of their actions (both foolish and violent)…. Halmea [in Horseman, Pass By] understands men, and she understands the adolescent male—she knows how sex can drive a man, causing him to be clownish, lovable, or vicious. She has been amused by Lon's sexual awakening, by his obvious and bungling overtures; now she can sympathize with his frustration and anxiety. In this she somewhat parallels Molly in Leaving Cheyenne, who realizes the importance of sex to a man: "it was because a man needed it, and had it all tangled up with his pride."… Indeed, it is only with the magnificently realized character of Molly that any of McMurtry's males find happiness, fleeting though it may be. Lon, in Horseman, Pass By, remains unfulfilled, and in the "Epilogue" it is apparent that he must flee Thalia and its environs…. But he is not going past Wichita, where his friend is hospitalized. He was correct when he sensed the futility of himself and of his friends: "All of them wanted more and seemed to end up with less; they wanted excitement and ended up stomped by a bull or smashed against a highway;… whatever it was they wanted, that was what they ended up doing without."

In McMurtry's second novel, Leaving Cheyenne …, the characters are equally bound to the town of Thalia and its environs; the Cheyenne of the title is Thalia (that is, Archer City), but no one leaves. Yet in this novel McMurtry is not so much concerned with adolescence as he is with the interactions of his characters…. The book is structured in four parts: the first section is Gid's narrative, the second Molly's, the third Johnny's, and the fourth the inscription on their tombstones. Both Gid and Johnny have loved Molly since they were boys, and the forty year span of the book traces their strange relationship with her. Much is revealed about Molly in the first and third sections; since she is the most important thing in the lives of the two men, it is quite natural that their narratives are predominantly about Molly. It is in Molly's own section, however, that the reader is given the greatest insight to Molly's personality. Although Molly's narrative is concerned with her memories of father, sons, and lovers, the section is really about her; in the...

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L. J. Davis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The principal trouble with Larry McMurtry's [Moving On] … is that it is about 500 pages too long. His characters are too amiable and ordinary, his action is too slight, his psychology is too shallow, and his incidents are just too damn normal to justify the incredibly extended treatment he has given them. There is simply not enough material here to cover the ground, and the result is a book that is fidgety, diffuse, and keenly disappointing.

From a summer in the rodeo circuit to a year in graduate school in Houston, the book follows the lives and declining personal fortunes of an attractive but bland pair of wealthy young Texans named Jim and Patsy Carpenter. McMurtry is dealing with some important themes, among them the decline of the old pioneering virtues and the role of women in a basically masculine society, but more often than not he ends up striking nothing but air. The Carpenters don't have any real problems, they have pretend problems. The unreal nature of their problems—and their very real anguish in dealing with them—is, of course, part of McMurtry's point. It is a point that is sufficiently blunted by 794 pages of repetition to make one wish that his characters were poor or crazy or something so that we could at least get some action. Patsy's love affair—which takes up the middle third of the book—has simply got to be one of the dullest on record, and it is not helped by McMurtry's tendency to use...

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James K. Folsom

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The different treatments of the same story in the novel Horseman, Pass By and the film Hud … show clearly the difficulty of translating the "mood" of a work of fiction into film and the necessity imposed by a visual medium of having characters act as visible foils to each other…. [The] film closely follows the plot of the novel, both in specific incident and in general intent. Horseman, Pass By … is remembered in retrospect through the eyes of Lonnie, its now older boyhood observer, who reflects upon the significance of a series of events that had happened on the ranch of his grandfather, Homer Bannon. Homer, a man past eighty years old, his wife, and Hud, her son by a former marriage, live on a ranch in Texas together with Lonnie and Halmea, the black cook and housekeeper. At the beginning of the novel a dead heifer has been discovered that turns out to be a victim of hoof-and-mouth disease. Homer's cattle must all be destroyed in order to halt the spread of the disease, and the reactions of the characters in the novel to the worst disaster which can strike a cattleman, form both the conflict in the novel's plot and the catalyst for Lonnie's transition to adulthood.

In a sense the differences between the two treatments of the story are indicated by the change in title from Horseman, Pass By to Hud. (pp. 365-66)

For the motion picture concerns itself with Hud in a way the novel does not, Hud becoming if not the film's moral hero very definitely its focal character…. [The] film has had to make specific the various generalized aspects of the novel's "single image" of the cowboy and to present them in terms of direct foils. Hence the values that in the novel are scattered among a number of characters, in the film are polarized between Hud and Homer Bannon, both of whom come to represent two distinct and mutually exclusive models for adult life. Rather than having a general view of the adult world as presented retrospectively through a number of characters, the film Lonnie must make a specific choice between two models who are conceived of as being directly opposed to one another. Though at the beginning Hud seems to Lonnie more attractive, by the end of the film Homer has replaced him as the desirable model.

This overly schematic analysis of Hud may give the quite erroneous impression that it is less subtle than Horseman, Pass By. Such is most emphatically not the case. The difference is rather, that in the film subtlety is expressed through the nuances of conflict between the two major characters, Hud and Homer, while in the novel subtlety is expressed through proliferation of characters and … through the retrospective musings of Lonnie himself upon the meaning of his own experience.

Horseman, Pass By is quite consciously conceived of as a mood piece and McMurtry does a brilliantly effective job of presenting, through Lonnie's thoughts, the inchoate but very real yearnings of adolescence for something, it knows not what. In Horseman, Pass By, then, Lonnie's adolescent perspective may effectively be presented in terms of his yearnings for some kind of escape from the world in which he finds himself. (p. 367)

Quite the opposite is true of the symbolic pattern of Hud, in which, if only because we must see both Homer and Hud, we understand very clearly what Lonnie is drawn toward, and not so clearly what exactly he is reacting against. The respective endings of novel and film emphasize the point: for while the metaphor of the novel is of escape, that of the film becomes exile.

Again, the very real difference between the two versions of the story may best be seen by analysing some of the changes from the novel made in the film. First of all is the fact that Halmea is changed in Hud from a black to a white woman, and Hud's rape of her, successful in Horseman, Pass By, is abortive in the film. Though this change originally may well have been prompted by non-esthetic considerations, it is nevertheless an effective one. The rape of Halmea in the novel is accomplished by Hud while Lonnie, who loves her, stands passively by. Though thematically this may make good sense, it is impossible to visualize except upon the screen of retrospective memory. In the novel Lonnie can tell us that this is what happened, without further explanation, and we accept his statement, though not without some mental reservations. But when the scene is actually presented to us we withhold our assent. When we must actually see the scene rather than having it reported to us, the basic improbability of the action becomes evident.

A more important change in the film is in the development of Hud's character. In the novel Hud's attractiveness to Lonnie as an image of successful sexuality is not really insisted upon until the rape of Halmea, while in the film this aspect of Hud's character is emphasized from the beginning. Early in Hud Lonnie is seen searching for Hud, whom he finds in the house of a married woman whose husband is away. The adolescent devil-may-care attractiveness of Hud to Lonnie is clear in this scene, which stands in clear symbolic contrast to the unattractive aspect of the same side of Hud as presented through the attempted rape of Halmea. In...

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Larry Goodwyn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One of the most interesting young novelists in the Southwest—and certainly the most embattled in terms of the frontier heritage—is Larry McMurtry. He should be examined in some detail for a review of his literary inquiry serves to summarize both the uses and dangers of the frontier inheritance as it affects the newest generation of southwestern writers to toil under its shadow.

McMurtry's first two novels, Horseman, Pass By and Leaving Cheyenne, were promising efforts to put the materials of frontier culture to serious literary use…. [Both books] are in-the-grain novels of people striving to live by the cultural values of the legend. An authentic mood is further heightened by the...

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Reed Whittemore

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[All My Friends] focuses almost exclusively on sex for the first few chapters, then dwindles for a long stretch into life and literature, as if even McMurtry had grown fatigued by coition, but finally returns determinedly but tragically to the sexual theme when the hero Danny Deck, having discovered that the girl with "the clearest eyes, the straightest look, the most honest face" of all the girls won't—or maybe the word is can't—have him decides to commit suicide….

If All My Friends is made into a movie, perhaps again a shift in the story's focus will occur, which would be for the best. The story has many good characters; McMurtry comments wittily on the contemporary...

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Janis P. Stout

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Northrop Frye writes in Anatomy of Criticism, "Of all fictions, the marvellous journey is the one formula that is never exhausted." I would add that the aimless journey, wandering, is also a timeless formula and one with a relatively constant meaning. This archetypal structure, the journey, variously pervades and controls the novels of Larry McMurtry and extends their import beyond the limits of a regional commentary.

McMurtry's five novels have not generally been considered in relation to archetypes but rather in relation to the more limited patterns afforded by their Texas setting and its distinctive heritage. Regarded in regional terms, the novels show considerable variation, as the impulse...

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Brina Caplan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Somebody's Darling has an interesting story to tell: Hollywood has chosen Jill Peel, a shy, witty, work-obsessed animator and cinematic technician, to be America's first woman film director. Her initial effort, Womanly Ways, is successful, so successful that it sends her on to the New York Film Festival, an Oscar, and the direction of a second film, this one a Western, to be shot on location in Texas. Jill's success, however, proves insistent; it places her in the confidence of a dying mogul; it ensnares her in a brutal love affair. It sets her at odds with a vengeful, female superstar and enforces a nearly disasterous distance between her and her oldest friends. At 37, Jill Peel must struggle to reclaim...

(The entire section is 864 words.)

Joseph J. Esposito

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Somebody's Darling employs some of the conventions of aesthetic realism and employs them well; the characters are rounded and believable and the story line involving….

A complex narration, similar to that of The Sound and the Fury, interestingly complicates plot and characters by showing them through overlapping and frequently contradictory lenses. (p. 181)

McMurtry's is to my mind the most mature of several recent novels by men that consider the current status of women in American society, yet it is bound to come under criticism from a certain quarter. Why make [the protagonist] Jill Peel a film director with only modest talent? Why make her fall in love with cruel...

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Kirkus Reviews

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

McMurtry's down-home fictions have always been juiced up with side-orders of raunchy charm and beer-barrel comedy—but this time [in Cadillac Jack] he tries, with middling results, to make an entire novel out of such enticing (yet ultimately wearying) trimmings. Narrator-hero "Cadillac Jack" McGriff is a onetime rodeo bulldogger who now travels the country, in his pearly Cadillac, as a super-duper dealer/scout—picking up antiques and other collectibles (e.g., a load of gem-encrusted cowboy boots), buying at garage sales, selling to the super-rich…. McMurtry does a dandy job with Jack's business doings here: his highway world of garage-sale finds, auction fever, and obsessive acquisition is captured in...

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John Brosnahan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Cadillac Jack, a] rambling drifter of a man—an antiques spotter who travels the country searching for collectible treasures and who acts as a middleman between seller and dealer—can't quite find the key to his own life. What Jack does find is himself in love with two women, and he's unable or unwilling to choose between them. While the plot often seems to be going nowhere at half-speed, McMurtry injects some marvelously comic poignancy into Jack's purposeless meanderings and creates a number of memorable characters in the bargain. A natural for fans of the author's wistful brand of soul-searching.

John Brosnahan, in a review of "Cadillac Jack," in Booklist (reprinted...

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Peter Prince

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It isn't entirely Larry McMurtry's fault that his new novel [Cadillac Jack] gives off a strong sense of déjà vu—there has been a surfeit of C&W/good ol' boy themes in fiction and movies lately. The smirking shade of John Travolta's urban cowboy seems to hover over most of Cadillac Jack's mild adventures, though Travolta would be far too young to play in the film version. Even Willie Nelson—and this gets closer to the area of McMurtry's culpability—would be far too young. For Cadillac Jack is carrying around in his peach velour interior a case of apathy, depression and world-weariness that would seem to need at least 150 years of bitter and dispiriting living to engender.


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Eden Ross Lipson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

By his own account, Cadillac Jack McGriff, 6 feet 5 inches of Texas manhood without his boots or Stetson, 35 years old and twice divorced, is a natural scout and a natural womanizer. Having done a stint as a bulldogger on the rodeo circuit, he retired to roam the country in his big pearl-colored Caddy with peach velour interior. He now spends his days scouting—exploring back roads for antiques and collectibles, buying and selling what strikes his fancy, "too curious, too restless, too much in love with the treasure hunt" to specialize.

The double conceit of scouting and that fancy vehicle allows Larry McMurtry … the peculiar luxury of a rambling, often incoherent, frequently entertaining...

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Joseph Browne

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Like most "antique" collections, Larry McMurtry's eighth novel [Cadillac Jack] is actually two or three valuables and a whole lot of junk. This is especially disappointing because McMurtry is too good a novelist … to believe that dozens of one-dimensional albeit eccentric characters, a protagonist who exists only to concatenate these eccentrics, and a theme and plot that remain forever incipient constitute literary art.

Cadillac Jack McGriff, antique scout extraordinaire, has a recurring dream of driving backward down the highway of his life. This surreal element permeates the novel like a crazed Pac-man munching away at everything resembling sustained characterization and meaningful plot....

(The entire section is 407 words.)