McMurtry's paean to paternal nobility

November 07, 1999|By Ken Fuson | Ken Fuson,Special to the Sun

"Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen," by Larry McMurtry. Simon and Schuster. 204 pages. $21.

Larry McMurtry loved his father.

Now a real west Texas cowboy would never just come out and say such a thing. He might talk about his horse in affectionate terms, and he might cry at his old man's funeral, but you'd have better luck stealing his boots than getting a true cowboy to wax sentimental.

McMurtry was almost a real cowboy. He spent 20 years helping his father raise Hereford cows on land more suitable for buffalo, but his passion was herding words, not cattle. Nonetheless, the author of "Lonesome Dove" certainly learned the cowboy code well enough.

If you want to express affection, tuck it deep inside an odd-titled book. Pack it amid an eccentric collection of musings on everything from the status of oral storytelling to the way book collectors organize their shelves. Let people think it's a memoir.

Throw everyone off. Begin your essay inside the Dairy Queen in Archer City, Texas, the desultory town of 2,000 where McMurtry grew up, now lives and the inspirational (if not actual) setting for several books, most notably, "The Last Picture Show."

Nursing a lime Dr. Pepper, McMurtry was reading "The Storyteller," an essay by Walter Benjamin in 1936 about the declining frequency and power of oral story-telling, when he looked around the local DQ and decided Benjamin was right.

"I wanted to know (a) what had happened in the county that was worth remembering, and (b) if so, did anyone still living remember it?

"The answers, trickling in over the next few weeks, were (a) nothing, and (b) no one."

Well, someone did. What McMurtry remembered was his own family's history. His grandparents were pioneers who started from scratch literally on a hill west of town. Much of McMurtry's fiction has tried to remove the romanticsm of the Old West. His grandparents were too busy surviving to worry about art, history or the future of storytelling as Walter Benjamin understood it.

Only one of the McMurtry boys stayed home -- Larry's father, who spent most of his 76 years raising the wrong animal on cheap credit. No matter how hard he and the others worked, "they could never get ahead."

Now the cowboy in McMurtry would undoubtedly forbid him from just stating how much he admired the old man. As near as I can tell, McMurtry doesn't even reveal his father's first name.

Instead, we get diversionary (and often amusing) reflections on television and the death of family dinners. We get McMurtry's secondary career as a book scout, accumulator, seller and reader. We get the author's quadruple-bypass surgery, which left him feeling as if his old self had died and barely able to read and write.

"I've not set out here to write an autobiography," McMurtry tells us. He might not have set out to write a tribute, either, but that's what he has done.

The first book of literature McMurtry read was "Don Quixote," and the book's themes re-emerged often as he watched his father. "My father couldn't hope to win, and he didn't win, but he kept fighting."

It was a noble battle, like trying to raise cattle on buffalo ground, like trying to herd words into ranches of literature, like pretending you belong somewhere other than under the west Texas sky.

McMurtry is his father's son. It's an old story, and he has told it well. Pass it on.

Ken Fuson, a former staff writer for The Sun, has been a reporter for more than 20 years. He now works at the Des Moines Register.

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