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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Though he's perhaps best known as the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry has written 22 other novels, two collections of essays, and more than 30 screenplays. His latest work, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections at Sixty and Beyond, is an autobiographical rumination.
Walter Benjamin takes its inspiration from a 1936 essay by that influential German literary critic that considers the diminishment of practical memory and the related, growing impotence of oral narrative in the 20th century.
"What, in this age when we are so oversupplied with information, does a given human need to remember, other than, perhaps, the names of his or her spouse (if any) and children?" McMurtry asks. The media is now responsible for giving us our memories, our stories, he points out; they're no longer passed down at the dinner table. Oral stories about personal experiences don't command the attention they did in the days before television because the boredom that made people curious about those stories has been muffled by television. As well, human moral experience was rendered somewhat meaningless by World War II.
But Walter Benjamin is much more a conversation than it is an argument, and McMurtry is not a dismal soothsayer predicting a fast-approaching cultural death. Instead, he is hopeful about the strength of narrative in modern society: Though the novel was first pronounced dead 80 years before McMurtry's birth, it is not "likely to die, not unless the middle class, which brought it into being and sustains it, dies first," he writes. Further proof, as he points out, is the relish with which young children receive stories.
As he grew into manhood, the American frontier life that McMurtry was born into -- the son of a cattle rancher, he grew up in Archer City, Texas -- began to pass, leaving behind it the romantic legacy of the cowboy myth. McMurtry realizes he has adapted his life to that changing myth. With land diminishing and the book life calling, cattle herding would not become a life for him as it had been for his father. Rather, he chose "to herd words into novel-sized ranches" and to corral secondhand books into the huge bookstore he recently opened in Archer City. He tells us that vanishing -- or at least changing -- breeds, like the cowboy, the novel, and the secondhand bookstore, have fascinated him all his life. Some fans might be surprised and even a bit saddened to learn that the dying breed that was the primary inspiration for the Lonesome Dove tetralogy was the frontier -- the physical landscape itself -- rather than the cowboy.
McMurtry has stated that Walter Benjamin is as close as he will ever come to writing an autobiography; as such, McMurtry aficionados will savor the book's many personal details and the insights it offers into the popular author's writing. For instance, when McMurtry was six years old, his older cousin, who was departing to serve in World War II, bequeathed 19 books to young Larry. It was then that McMurtry began to think he might become a writer. Reading quickly became "a pleasure whose stability [he] could always depend on," and literature "a vast open range, my equivalent of the cowboy's dream." Just as his parents and other frontier folk filled the empty landscape with settlements, McMurtry dedicated his life to filling empty pages and empty shelves.
And yet the stable pleasure of reading vanished unexpectedly after he underwent quadruple-bypass surgery in 1991. Though he recovered physically from it, the operation took away McMurtry's hunger for reading -- and with that loss, a sense of identity. "The thing, more than any other, that convinced me I had in some sense died was that I [was unable to] read," he says. It would be three years before he regained his appetite for the written word, though he still feels as though his reading-recovery is not complete.
It's not only McMurtry's loyal fans that will enjoy his reminiscent musings; anyone can learn from such a thoughtful man's experiences. Most readers will also appreciate his dark humor, demonstrated, for instance, in his observations on diet, which he believes many Americans approach as if it were a form of theology: "Fat -- or Satan -- had to be driven out.... The suggestion that fat-free food will save you from death...is everywhere present in the supermarket."
McMurtry, who thinks "books are [still] the fuel of genius," is happy at the thought that when he passes on, he'll be leaving about a million secondhand books behind in his store. Selling books, he writes, is a modern way of passing on experience. Though essay writing isn't exactly a modern way of doing the same -- people were writing essays long before Benjamin composed the one that inspired McMurtry -- passing on experience is exactly what McMurtry has done in Walter Benjamin. Quietly and wisely, he teaches his lessons of life in a way that likely resembles the talks his cowboy ancestors had around the evening fire.
Maura Kelly is a freelance writer. She lives in New York City.