Monday, July 11, 2011

Larry McMurtry and Literary Life

I came upon the second volume of Larry McMurtry's Literary Life: A Second Memoir yesterday at Mrs. Dalloway's in Berkeley. This morning I inhaled all 175 pages and relished them all.

My interest in McMurtry has two basic sources. First, I met him in Denton, Texas, where he studied as an undergraduate. He returned to give a talk at the University of North Texas while I was a faculty member there. (His brother was in the English department's graduate program at the time.) We ate at Ranchman's Cafe, his favorite steakhouse in nearby Ponder. This was after his heart surgery, which he discussed that evening as well as in this book.

The second link is McMurtry's stint at Stanford University's writing program, where his fellow students included Ken Kesey and many other talented authors. The writing program figures in Philip Fradkin's biography of Wallace Stegner, which I wrote about for the Los Angeles Times Book Review, as well as in my Grateful Dead research. (The Dead were closely connected to Kesey and the Merry Pranksters.) Without dwelling on the program, Stegner, or Kesey, McMurtry conveys a way of understanding all three that I found instructive and appealing. I also learned that McMurtry (like Kesey and the Dead) was and is a big fan of Kerouac's On the Road, especially the scroll version that was released in 2007.

About his own work, McMurtry is modest. "I was a midlist novelist who had gotten lucky with the movies, that's all," he writes at one point, although in this particular passage he may have been trying to capture how his New York colleagues regarded him. At another point, he notes that he aspired to, and finally did, become "a man of letters."

Between his long list of books, essays for The New York Review of Books, screenwriting credits (including an Oscar for Brokeback Mountain), bookselling and collecting, and his stint as American PEN president, McMurtry really has led an admirable and unique literary life. What a great pleasure to spin through this slender volume and learn more about that life. "The commonwealth of literature is complex," he writes toward the end, "but a sense of belonging to it is an important feeling for a writer to have and to keep."


At 1:58 PM , Blogger Smarttopper said...

I always enjoy reading your erudite postings. Too many wonderful writers have left us this year. I fear Joan Didion may be in the upcoming lineup -- [but hope not! 'Blue Nights' is wonderful, if more than a tad depressing. Happy holidays from Texas; I spent a little pleasant time with McMurtry recently when they screened 'The Last Picture Show' with him, Jeff Bridges, and Peter Bogdanovich in attendance. Once in a lifetime...


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