18. October 2009 · Comments Off on Contemplating Throwing in the Towel on Larry McMurtry · Categories: Ain't That America?, General, Literary Good Stuff, Rant, Working In A Salt Mine...

You know, I’ll be hanging in there for several reasons – sheer stubbornness and the fact that I bought all four of them for pennies on the dollar at various library book sales being chief among them – but I just wanna say that at this point, me carrying on with reading Dead Man’s Walk, Comanche Moon, Lonesome Dove and Streets of Laredo is already shaping up to be a long and, I fear, ultimately frustrating slog through the deserts of the metaphorical southwest. I might very well get to the end of it all, rejoicing and acclaiming the author as one of the epochal bards of the Texas frontier … but at this point – which about half a dozen chapters into each book, except for Dead Man’s Walk where I am nearly to the end – the odds are about even that I’ll pack it in and go get some unanesthetized root canal work done instead, or maybe watch the whole season run of Bridezillas’. Hey, at least there, I can root for some of the more sane family members and friends of the bridal party and hope that a much-harassed and out-of-patience MOH will haul off and serve up the ‘Zilla-of-the-moment with a richly-deserved knuckle sandwich. This hope will string me along for at least a good few hours – with Bridezillas and McMurtry alike. Drama, baby – it’s all about the drama.

I just keep hoping that something similar will happen, somewhere along in the Woodrow Call/Gus McRae cycle. I so dearly hope it will, because everyone else says such wonderful things about it all, including some of my very own dear fans who have, most flatteringly compared my books to his – on the basis, I think, that I wrote about frontier Texas, and had a hero who was an early Texas Ranger, and included lashings of war, local and historic color, tragic romance and the fading of the Old West. Of course, the lucky author, Mr. McMurtry got a whole couple of TV miniseries made from his books, (with surging royalties and residuals and all, and reissued paperbacks with stills of the stars on the covers, all of which would make his agent worth every penny of the 15% of which Mr. McMurtry earns out of his labors as a creative scribbler and raconteur of the Old West) and so it isn’t all just sour-grapes from an aspiring author, hardly blessed or even barely noticed by the literary-industrial complex … ohhh, do I get any recognition for having written a totally complicated and sort-of-run-on-sentence in the Grand Victorian Tradition? (Oh, guess not, not this time around – better move on, then.)

The first hurdle in my path of eventual acceptance is – that so far, it’s all build-up and character, but no actually delivery. I am sorta-intrigued, but not-really grabbed by interest, in the characters so delineated. I keep wondering why the deadpan flat, detached affect? Why should I care about various characters if the author doesn’t seem to give a damn about them, or even display much interest, other than in the strictly clinical? As a reader I am also a little exhausted by following the constant leaping one character’s POV to another, and another within the same chapter, and just when I have recovered from the last of them and remember who it is, exactly that I am supposed to be interested in – then I trip and fall flat over a large chunk of expository back-story, which doesn’t much lead to anything much happening. A friend of mine, also a fan of both McMurtry and I explained to me that this is very much a Texas thing, to meander and meander, and wander … eventually to come around in a circle again, without anything very much having happened. Apparently, the process of the story is supposed to be the main bit of enjoyment. So how was a couple of hours of heavy petting, leading nowhere other than a chaste kiss of the hand at the doorway supposed to be rewarding – when you have been led in happy anticipation to look for something a bit more energetic? When this happens, romantically, one tends to be a bit disappointed, think of the other party as a dreadful tease, write off the evening as a waste of time and make-up, and resolve to let the answering machine pick-up next time. With a best-selling, and to all appearances, very popular author, who started off Lonesome Dove with one of the very best opening sentences evah … well, maybe one should be a little more indulgent.

Alas – I have a bit of trouble with another aspect of the cycle, especially the earlier books, in being a bit of an amateur specialist in history. That is, amateur in the antique sense of a person who zestfully acquires knowledge for the sheer love of the field. I have no academic training, other than that required of English majors three decades ago, not even a minor in history, or any fancy qualifying initials after my name – only a burning passion to learn as much as I can about any particular aspect, and to get it right, and to weave that knowledge into my stories. Which is all very well, but has absolutely ruined me for watching westerns on television; don’t even get me started on the fantasy west, of pulp novels and TV series and movies. I’m too apt to notice that there is a zipper down the back of the heroine’s dress, notice that the traveling cowboy is camping with a lot more gear than he could have packed into a teensy bedroll on the back of his horse, and there is a deep-rock gold mine right next to a cattle ranch, and to wonder where the heck in the West that could have happened?

Plowing gamely through the first two books has been a bit of a disconcerting experience, as I keep running across names, historic characters and incidents of Texas history but as if someone had jumbled them all together in a small box, and then emptied them out in random order, omitted some pivotal incidents and people, exaggerated others for effect, and now and again threw in something completely bizarre, just rang off-key for me. The real Buffalo Hump wasn’t a hunchback, if the description of him at Meusebach’s peace conference is anything to go by. The real Bigfoot Wallace lived to die of ripe old age; he drew life from a jar of dried beans in Mexican captivity … which incident happened to the survivors of the Meir expedition, not the Texan attempt to take Santa Fe, which occurred twenty years later and during the Civil War anyway. Austin was never raided, looted and burned over by a Comanche raiding party – that happened to Linnville, in 1840 – and the aftermath of that involved a massed force of Rangers, local militia and volunteers giving as good as they got in the Plum Creek fight. Makes me wonder why McMurtry needed to make anything up, when what really happened historically would have made at least as much of a good story. And it is a bit of puzzlement, wondering how the early Rangers in the first two books are pretty consistently pictured as being neophytes, hopeless little golden carp in a sea of hungry sharks – a tasty mouthful for every passing predator … which reminds me of the character who was neatly scalped of all of his hair by Buffalo Hump going past at a gallop. I’m almost sure scalping someone took a little bit more than a single swipe with a knife from horseback, although if anyone had perfected the art of a ride-by scalping, it would have been the Comanche.

It sounded a bit improbable, anyway – and the hapless recipient of it as disposable as any of the red-shirted crewmen on Star Trek, beaming down to an alien planet and being killed in the first act. And that sort of disposing of a character, and other characters, and having characters appear and disappear, and such strange and improbable turns of the plot, such as having a naked English noblewoman with leprosy and a pet snake sing a Verdi aria to bluff a party of hostile Indian warriors into letting a our heroes pass by … well, that was just too television for words, and I came to that realization with a certain shock of recognition. I know they’ve made the books into movies, or into miniseries, and that’s more right than readers and watchers could possibly have known – because it is more like one of the old television westerns than has been along in years! A jumble of historical events and happenstances, check – interminable, episodic adventures – check. Handful of basic, easily identifiable characters – check – some vicious and inscrutable villains (some of them with baroque torture chambers and suitable evil henchmen) – check. Rotating stable of supporting characters, and endless supply of disposable extras – check and check again. And a disconcerting tendency for certain startling shifts in the cast to occurs between seasons …or between books. And there you go – it’s a TV western writ large; no wonder the Lonesome Dove cycle has so many fans. Having come to this conclusion, I will probably carry on for a bit, keeping it in mind… but isn’t Bridezillas on tonight?

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