McMurtry's new work continues to take the myth out of the West

October 10, 1990|By Carey Quan Gelernter | Carey Quan Gelernter,Seattle Times

"Lonesome Dove." "The Last Picture Show." "Terms of Endearment." "Horseman, Pass By." "Texasville."

If you're not a reader, you may know these books' author through the movies and television versions. ("Horseman" became "Hud").

Of course, the books were better.

Larry McMurtry was in Seattle, not incidentally, to lecture in conjunction with the Henry Art Gallery's "Myth of the West" exhibit.

A fitting choice for speaker.

Nearly all McMurtry's books are rooted in the American West -- whether its characters are confused youth unsure of a place in a changing Texas ("Moving On"); cowboys driving cattle to Montana ("Lonesome Dove"); or historical figures such as Calamity Jane (just out, "Buffalo Girls," Simon & Schuster, $19.95).

McMurtry writes about the American West without illusion; not, he says, about mythic heroes, but about flawed humans.

This includes women, about whom McMurtry is noted for writing especially sympathetically and perceptively; no cardboard whores or madonnas for him. (Asked about this ability, he offers as one explanation: "I'm more interested in women.")

So how did the author become gripped by the American West?

The allure, he says, is a combination of exploring his own history and tradition, and a fascination with "vanishing ways of life, dying breeds and dying crafts. There's a sadness about something that flourishes and dies."

McMurtry grew up in Archer City, Texas -- which became Thalia in "The Last Picture Show" and "Texasville" (now in the nation's theaters). His uncles were cowboys and cattlemen, and his grandfather lived through the cattle-driving days. "I heard so many stories as a small boy."

"You don't abandon your roots and traditions, you scrutinize them," he explains. His books, he says, are both "criticism, celebration and lament for an era and its passing."

"I grew up in the mid-'50s, when people were leaving the land for the city. The agrarian tradition was beginning to die." Which meant conflict between old and new -- a writer's natural subject.

His first six books explored the theme. Then, "the only thing was to go backward in time."

Which brings us to those "revisionist westerns."

He says Billy the Kid ("Anything for Billy") and Calamity Jane intrigued him because neither was remarkable. Billy the Kid wasn't especially violent for his time, and Calamity Jane "didn't do much of anything; she had an unhappy life, wandered around, gender confused. I became interested in why people become legends when they're not exceptional."

He thinks it's because during their time there were sharp operators, like Buffalo Bill Cody, who realized that a way of life was ending and "it was a salable commodity to the settled Easterners." Hence the pulp western novel, Wild West shows -- and a hyped Billy and Jane.

While still a salable commodity, McMurtry's not writing about them for quite so cynical a reason.

Which is where the "criticism of his roots" part comes in.

McMurtry is in sync with the revisionist historians who seek to deglorify the so-called "conquering of the West." In this view, he notes, "They look at it negatively, it's seen as a rape -- destruction of land and native peoples" as well as many settlers who self-destructed.

He has, he says, skewered "crude stereotypes, like the cowboy; I've never been in love with them . . . Realism is a form of criticism."

Will he write more on the West?

He's not sure. "I've told the 'end of the West' story three times, probably as many times as I can get away with."

But he doesn't believe we Americans have tired of westerns. We now have our urban shoot-em-ups -- "I've argued Bond movies are really urban westerns, men with a gun movies, morally simplistic." But the myth of the Old West still is a powerful one, he says.

If western movies seem to have died out, McMurtry says it's because they cost so much to make ("it's very expensive to use animals"). The Pulitzer Prize-winning book "Lonesome Dove," he mentions, was cheaper to film for TV (lower pay scales, quicker shooting schedule).

"Lonesome Dove" grew from a script that was to star John Wayne, James Stewart and Henry Fonda, he says; if Wayne hadn't died, it probably would have been made.

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