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About the Author
Hometown:Archer City, Texas
Date of Birth:June 3, 1936
Place of Birth:Wichita Falls, Texas
Education:B.A., North Texas State University, 1958; M.A., Rice University, 1960. Also studied at Stanford University.
Read an Excerpt
In a Narrow GraveEssays on Texas
By Larry McMurtry
Simon & SchusterCopyright © 2001 Larry McMurtry
All right reserved.
An Introduction: The God Abandons Texas
Being a writer and a Texan is an amusing fate, one that gets funnier as one's sense of humor darkens. In times like these it verges on the macabre. Apparently there was a time in the forties and fifties when people sort of enjoyed reading about Texas, if the reading was light enough. The state was thought to be different -- another country, almost. It had Nieman-Marcus and the Alamo and a lot of rather endearing millionaires. As late as 1961 Mr. John Bainbridge of The New Yorker was able to do well with a book called The SuperAmericans, a collection of polite anecdotes about the millionaires. For Texas letters, the forties and fifties were the Golden Age; that is, J. Frank Dobie was still alive. To Texas readers he was a notch above Homer and a notch below Shakespeare, while the world outside reckoned him almost as good as Carl Sandburg. One moderately good writer was all that was expected of a place like Texas.
In those days, of course, Lyndon Johnson was still only half of Rayburn and Johnson. The nation's intellectuals lost no sleep over him, and MacBird was undreamt of.
Alas, all is changed. We aren't thought of as quaintly vulgar anymore. Some may find us dangerously vulgar, but the majority just find us boring. As a subject, Texas has become frankly stultifying: if it's another country, it's a country literate America hopes to hear no more about. That magisterial stream, the "Pedernales," is frequently pissed in now by intellectuals who appear to hope that the products of their literary bladders will somehow eat holes in the Presidential motorboat. Having yielded Mr. Johnson, it is hardly to be expected that the state will yield anything funny in the next few years, much less anything aesthetically interesting.
Thus the writer like myself, whose characters live in Texas, may find himself writing into a rather stiff wind. If he is ambivalent about the state as a place, the stiffness of the wind may cause him to become discouraged about it as a subject. This is particularly apt to happen if he attempts to write from Texas, as well as about it. Many Texas writers migrate, of course, and make their way to the literary capitals; there they often find their frontier manners and their experience in the boondocks so marketable socially that they have little time for reflection, and, indeed, little desire to reflect upon the place they have left. What most of them find the time for is nostalgia, a somewhat different thing.
It would be a pity if the chill literary winds discourage too many people about Texas as a subject, for present-day Texas is a very rich subject, particularly for the novelist. Present-day California might be even richer, but California, whether as a subject or a place to live, is almost too taxing. There the confusion is greater, the rivalries of manners more intense: the question is whether anyone can live in California and comprehend it clearly now. Nathanael West would have a harder time with the state today than he had in 1939.
Texas is almost as intense, but much less dizzying. Society here is divided, but it is not yet fragmented to a degree that would raise difficulties for the novelist. The state is at that stage of metamorphosis when it is most fertile with conflict, when rural and soil traditions are competing most desperately with urban traditions -- competing for the allegiance of the young. The city will win, of course, but its victory won't be cheap -- the country traditions were very strong. As the cowboys gradually leave the range and learn to accommodate themselves to the suburbs, defeats that are tragic in quality must occur and may be recorded.
I started, indeed, to call this book The Cowboy in the Suburb, but chose the present title instead because I wanted a tone that was elegiac rather than sociological. Nonetheless, I think it is essentially that movement, from country to subdivision, homeplace to metropolis, that gives life in present-day Texas its passion. Or if not its passion, its strong, peculiar mixture of passions, part spurious and part genuine, part ridiculous and part tragic.
However boring Texas might be to move to, it is not a boring place to be rooted. The transition that is taking place is very difficult, and the situations it creates are very intense. Living here consciously uses a great deal of one's blood; it involves one at once in a birth, a death, and a bitter love affair.
From the birth I expect very little: the new Texas is probably going to be a sort of kid brother to California, with a kid brother's tendency to imitation.
The death, however, moves me -- the way of life that is dying had its value. Its appeal was simple, but genuine, and it called to it and is taking with it people whom one could not but love.
The last, the affair of the heart and blood, is really more physical than would have seemed possible, with a land so unadorned; but the quality of one's intimacy with a place seems to depend as little on adornment as the quality of one's intimacy with a woman. One should not, perhaps, call it a bitter love affair -- merely one that has become a little too raw, too real, too stripped of fantasy. The time may have come to part or marry, but, for myself, I put no trust in either alternative. Parting would not leave me free, nor marriage make me happy.
There is a song Texas kids still sing, a song about the passing of the cowboy:
I'm going to leave
Old Texas now,
They've got no use
For the longhorn cow.
They've plowed and fenced
My cattle range
And the people there
Are all so strange...
It is a slight song, but, for the Texas writer, an inescapable subject. When I think about the passing of the cowboy, my mind inappropriately hangs on the poem of Cavafy's, from the scene in Shakespeare, from the sentence of Plutarch's: the poem in which the god abandons Antony. I like Cavafy's treatment best, with Antony at his window at night in Alexandria, bidden to drink past all deceiving while the god and his retinue file away. In Shakespeare only the guards hear the strange music that marks the god's departure, but it is still a telling moment -- indeed, a telling fancy.
I can believe I have heard such music myself, in Fort Worth, Houston, Dallas; by the Rio Grande and the Brazos; in the brush country and on the Staked Plains. The music of departure is now rather faint, the god almost out of hearing. The god who abandoned Antony was Hercules -- what is the name of the god who now abandons Texas? Sometimes I see him as Old Man Goodnight, or as Teddy Blue, or as my Uncle Johnny -- all people the reader will meet if the reader reads on -- but the one thing that is sure is that he was a horseman, and a god of the country. His home was the frontier, and his mythos celebrates those masculine ideals appropriate to a frontier.
Myself, I dislike frontiers, and yet the sense that my own has vanished produces in me the strongest emotion I have felt in connection with Texas, or with any place. It has embedded itself in the titles of each of my books, and just as I think I have worn the emotion out it seizes me again, usually at some unlikely moment. I see my son, age five, riding a mechanical horse in front of the laundromat on Sunday morning, and the sight calls up my Uncle Johnny, when he was age five, sitting on top of the McMurtry barn watching the last trail herd go by. It is indeed a complex distance from those traildrivers who made my father and my uncles determined to be cowboys to the mechanical horse that helps convince my son that he is a cowboy, as he takes a vertical ride in front of a laundromat.
That is the distance I hope to cover in this book. It may, like my other books, be a form of parting, a wave of the hand at Old Man Goodnight, Teddy Blue, Uncle Johnny and all they stood for.
It is also, on a baser level, a literary gambit. It has clearly become necessary to write discursively of Texas if one is to be heard at all beyond one's city limits. The South, fortunately for its writers, has always been dark and bloody ground, but Texas is only scenery, and poor scenery at that. Even so, Mr. Faulkner had to write about a girl being raped with a corncob before he gained more than a semblance of a readership, and most of that soon deserted him. Today the fields of fiction are littered with raped bodies -- try the corncob route and readers will yawn in your face.
As a regionalist, and a regionalist from an unpopular region, I find the problem of how to get heard rather a fascinating one. I haven't found it especially depressing, but then I wouldn't have gone in for writing if I hadn't liked talking to myself. I quite recognize that there have always been literary capitals and literary provinces, and that those who choose for whatever reason to abide in the provinces need not expect a modish recognition. Recently, of course, the picture has become much brighter. The Texas writer who really wants to get famous has only to work up his autobiography in such a way that it will (1) explain the assassination and (2) make it possible for President Johnson to be impeached. If he can do that, his name is made. The New York Review of Books will beat a path to his door, particularly if his door happens to be somewhere in Manhattan. Should his door be in Anarene, Texas, they will probably rely on the mails, but in any event he can put obscurity behind him. If he ever gets to New York he may even meet Susan Sontag.
I don't understand the assassination and I doubt that I can do anything about the President. My chances of meeting Miss Sontag are accordingly pretty slim and I might as well forget about it and go on and write a book about the place where my characters live.
I have a feeling I had better do it now, before the emotion I feel at the thought of the god becomes only the memory of an emotion. That god is riding fast away, and will soon be out of sight and out of hearing.
Copyright © 1968 by Larry McMurtry Copyright renewed © 1996 by Larry McMurtry
Copyright renewed © 1996 by Larry McMurtry
Excerpted from In a Narrow Grave by Larry McMurtry Copyright © 2001 by Larry McMurtry. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
An Introduction: The God Abandons Texas
1. Here's HUD in Your Eye
2. Cowboys, Movies, Myths, & Cadillacs: An Excursus on Ritual Forms in the Western Movie
3. Southwestern Literature?
4. Eros in Archer County
5. A Look at the Lost Frontier
6. The Old Soldier's Joy
7. Love, Death, and the Astrodome
8. A Handful of Roses
9. Take My Saddle from the Wall: A Valediction
What People are Saying About This
A. C. Greene Takes apart Texas with all the skill and sadness of a master surgeon performing a postmortem on his mother.