I grew up in the North Jersey precincts of Philip Roth and Amiri Baraka, but the literary home of my youth was in the West. My family traveled by motorhome throughout my childhood and I spent most of my summers reading westerns in situ. In the summer of 1985, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove was published and I read it–maybe in southern Utah, or near Cody, Wyoming–for the first of at least twenty times. I give it to everyone; it is the best novel ever written, other than maybe Moby-Dick or Absalom, Absalom!. When, for example, I urged it on members of my husband Jonathan’s rugby team for a long trip to Asia, I received postcards from Cambodia, or Laos from various props and flankers who would write only “my god, Gus McCrae” or “BLUE DUCK.” If our daughter had been a boy she probably would have been named Augustus.
But in this moment I want to honor something that happens in the final lines of many of Larry McMurtry’s other novels–the “lesser” ones–those not characterized by the sustained, magisterial beauty and devastation that monumentalizes Lonesome Dove. McMurtry writes a lot, and at length, and much of what he writes seems tossed off, the product of a second or third thought (and I’m not just talking about the unnecessary sequels here). In the midst of the easy meander and attenuated mundanity of many of his western plots a reader can wonder what the point of it all is. Those without a drive to completion could easily idle or stop. But not reading to the distant end of McMurtry’s novels means you might miss the often world-thudding conclusions to plots otherwise without aim, a final chapter or final line that wrenches something loose from both the novel’s untroubled structure and the reader’s complacency. These moments have left me weeping and pinned, and have done so without adjectival or amplificatory prose: much as the West looked to my 1980s Jersey-girl eyes, the actual lines that slay me are flat and spare.
Two examples: Buffalo Girls, a novel about Calamity Jane; and The Evening Star, the sequel to Terms of Endearment. (What follows spoils the ending of Buffalo Girls, for those not students of the historical Jane—fair warning.) Buffalo Girls is an epistolary novel as written by Martha “Calamity” Jane Cannary to her daughter Janey, who is at boarding school while her mother drifts in the company of bumblers through encounters with various famous western Bills, Cody and Hickock. The novel is tedious; it feels like it is pandering to those who wanted more red western dust from McMurtry in the half-decade after Lonesome Dove. But in her final letter to daughter, Calamity Jane reveals that she had been “born odd”–possibly intersexed; Janey does not exist outside her mother’s imagination. This is a shocking revelation for the reader, who had never been given cause to guess that Calamity Jane might have fabricated the object of her love and address. “I made up the best life I could for you Janey,” she writes, “it is the opposite of the life I have lived out here in this mess they call the west.” Jane’s last words to her daughter, which close the novel: “Darling Jane–I meant to stop writing these letters–here I am doing it again. What does that say about human beings?” Thud.
The characters that McMurtry revisits in The Evening Star are not mytho-historical nineteenth-century westerners but his own Aurora Greenway of Terms of Endearment–that is, Shirley MacLain’s character. In this needless sequel, Aurora tends to her disappointing grandchildren and fading suitors; it, too, is tedious and pandering. As the elderly Aurora herself fades at the end of the novel, she commandeers a new infant great-grandson, Henry, and plays Brahms’s Requiem for him, again and again. We perceive this through Henry’s consciousness: “As he lay on her lap the old woman made the sounds even louder. The sounds became the world….Henry wanted to make sure that he and the old woman stayed together. He did not want to get lost.” From this scene of trans-generational communion we are propelled to the novel’s final brief chapter, in which Henry is now twenty-four and living in New York with a dancer girlfriend who finds him too “controlled.” One night they are at the Philharmonic and Brahms’s Requiem begins. To his and his girlfriend’s shock Henry weeps hugely; he had “the emptying sense that he once had someone or something very important: something or someone that he could not even remember, except as a loss–something or someone that he would never have again.” Henry’s girlfriend “looked at him differently” then. “Boy,” she closes the novel, “You were really upset.” Thud.
New Jersey is crowded; only in the southern Pine Barrens can you drive for more than a few miles without seeing buildings or people, and I grew up in the dense ethnic enclaves of the North Jersey metropolitan region. In our motorhome trips out West each summer, though, we would drive many hundreds of miles in a day, avoiding cities. We drove for so long that we took the sublime scenery for granted. But those long unfolding drives in the glare of Western light would end at a place of transhistorical revelation: Canyon de Chelly, AZ, with its ancient Puebloan cliff dwellings, or Arches National Park, UT, with the greatest concentration of natural arches in the world. The endpoint, as in McMurtry’s novels, was not just a surprise; it was a category shift, a new logic of relation between emotional investment and a history that resisted its own telling.
My childhood novel reading along blue highways and in red canyons was on my mind in 2005 when Jonathan and I took a 600-mile road trip to the tiny tumbleweed town of Archer City, Texas, where McMurtry was born and where he kept the 450,000 volumes he had bought from shuttered bookstores. I was pregnant but we didn’t know it yet. The “Last Picture Show” of McMurtry’s novel is still there, a rubble of stone open to the air. The bookstore occupied four buildings on a main street that felt like a ghost town. Remaindered books–ones you could find anywhere else for $2.50 or less–were priced at $40. We did not buy a book, although we are bookish people. At the time this felt like a principled stance in the face of what could be tourist rookery–the pricing seemed to expect that one would not drive that far and come away with nothing. (If you have taken road trips in the US, imagine not buying a Wall Drug or South of the Border bumpersticker.) But now our non-purchase of a single book from this place of pilgrimage has taken a new form, the form of the last word in a story we tell at dinner parties: we took a road trip to the Oz of bookstores and came away armed only with the stories we ourselves had made. “What does that say about human beings?”
Hester Blum: Longtime listener, first time caller.