Friday, March 26, 2021

RIP Larry McMurtry


I knew Larry McMurtry, slightly and briefly. We were both Washington-area booksellers in the 70s--which is much like saying Greg Norman and I were both American golfers in the 80s. Larry was in Georgetown selling first editions and choice Americana; I was out in the burbs, making the rent (or not) on estate-sale books and half-price paperbacks--most of them, it seemed, Harlequin Romances.

Before the internet (back in my day, sonny), you carried your expertise in your head. There were reference books--big, heavy reference books--but you couldn't haul them to a yard sale or a church bazaar. There were "book scouts" who traveled around buying unrecognized rarities cheap, and selling them to established dealers. They were a romantic breed, in a nerdish sort of way, at least to book people. McMurtry was a scout for a couple of years, before opening his store.

One of the best ways to buy stock was at the big annual charity book sales, and the biggest and best was that of the Vassar Alumnae Association. Larry was traditionally first in line at the Vassar Sale. He'd show up before dawn with a sleeping bag, a big East Texas cotton-picking sack, and a couple of minions. As soon as the doors opened, he would dash for the Rare Books section, and his minions would fan out over the floor. Anything that looked at all promising would go in the big sack. After the first rush was over, they would gather in a quiet corner to inspect their books, decide which ones to keep, and pile the rest on the nearest table. A dick move for sure, but he was royalty in that little world, and no one called him on it.

Larry wrote somewhere that the three great loves of his life were women, books and the road. He had plenty of all three. His wives and girlfriends were an A-List of beauty and celebrity; his store in Archer City had, at one time, close to half a million volumes. And he really, really loved to drive. Not quaint back roads either, but the Interstates. Once, when I mentioned to him that my folks had retired to West Texas, he got a dreamy look in his eyes and talked for a while about the long straight highways, the little towns, the empty spaces.

He was, among many other things, an academic's academic, as comfortable discussing Mme DeStael and Pirandello and Russian cinema as the Old West. But he will be remembered for Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call, and that's right and proper.


The Dude said...

Rest in peace, Mr. McMurtry, you led a full and productive life.

Things I did know - "Lonesome Dove" and his D.C. bookstore. The rest - well, I learned a bit of it today.

First up - I figured Luigi Pirandello was a character in a Mozart opera with the libretto written by Lorenzo Da Ponte, but I could not have been more wrong. Thanks for leading me to his story.

Next, McMurtry went to Stanford with Ken Kesey. I read "The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test" by my close personal friend Tom Wolfe and in that book he wrote about where Kesey lived on campus. I went to look for that housing when I first arrived in the Bay Area in '72, but by then the buildings were gone. The eucalyptus grove was still there, and from the trees I could get a general sense of what it must have been like in years gone by.

Of course, I have written about my Kesey adventures, but even though I knew that McMurtry's store was right down the road from where I was living in Maryland, I never stopped in. I should have.

Missed opportunities and things that might have been...

ndspinelli said...

West Texas is interesting, both the terrain and the people.

Dad Bones said...

I remember hearing that he never got his writing groove back after having a heart transplant. That's too bad but he left plenty behind. After I read Lonesome Dove I read every book of his that my library had.

MamaM said...

A trip to the For What it's Worth Wiki, yielded this, which intrigued me, as I continue to believe in the unique and ever given power of story (oral and written) to shape and change lives:

McMurtry said that during his first five or six years in his grandfather's ranch house, there were no books, but his extended family would sit on the front porch every night and tell stories. In 1942, when his cousin Robert Hilburn was on his way to enlist for World War II, he stopped by the ranch house and left a box containing 19 books. McMurtry then began to read. The books were standard boys' adventure tales of the 1930s, and he read them endlessly. The first book he read was Sergeant Silk: The Prairie Scout.

MamaM said...

Dad Bones, I found this in an online article from 1997 in the NYT archives (through a door I won't usually darken) where some of the loss and the changes he experienced are mentioned.

It began with a heart attack six years ago, followed by quadruple bypass surgery. But the real "change" didn't occur until months later, while he was recuperating at the Tucson home of Diana Ossana, his close companion and collaborator of many years. At first he felt fine -- he was exercising, reading Proust, thinking about a new book. In fact, Ossana thought he looked better than she had seen him in years. But then something went wrong.
He started waking up in the middle of the night, filled with terror, and during the day all he could do was lie down on a white couch in Ossana's living room and stare out the window at the sunlit Catalina Mountains. He didn't read, he barely talked, he just lay there for days, then months. Ossana watched, horrified, as a friend who had never before complained or indulged in self-pity, the hard-working son and grandson of stoic Texas ranchers, slowly went to pieces.

Ossana is a self-reliant, thoughtful writer with two grown children and one grandchild. She knew what was going on, but she didn't know what to do about it. "He was falling apart," she recalls. "It was a scary thing to see." Depression strikes some 20 percent of all heart attack survivors, though researchers are still not sure whether the heart disease causes the depression, or whether people who tend toward depression get more heart disease. Either way, the effect was startling. McMurtry lay on that couch for more than a year.

"I faded out of my life," he says. "Suddenly I found myself becoming an outline, and then what was within that outline vanished." He was convinced that the operation itself created a rupture with his past self -- that being on the heart-lung machine for nearly five hours, essentially dead, left an impassable gulf. "Like you're undergoing an internal protest because of an event you can't remember. You feel that your personality has died, or been fragmented, so that it's swirling around and you can only occasionally attach it to your feelings."

Continued below

MamaM said...

The worst effect, perhaps, was that he lost the ability to read for pleasure -- he couldn't concentrate on the words. Oddly enough, he could still write, but the pages came quickly and joylessly, almost by rote. Every morning, as Ossana got her daughter Sara, then 15, off to school, McMurtry sat down at the kitchen counter and typed. "I felt like a fax machine," he says, but after 90 minutes or so, he would stop and go back to the couch.

Ossana was encouraged that he was writing, but once she started reading some of the pages, that began to worry her, too. His new work was unrelentingly grim; whole sections seemed to be a barely disguised account of his own disintegration. After several months, her daughter pulled her into the bathroom and shut the door so McMurtry couldn't hear them. "Mama," she said, "I love Larry, but it hurts me to look at him because he's so sad. When I do I just want to cry."

Somehow, the pile of pages by the typewriter in the kitchen grew into "Streets of Laredo," a brooding, powerful sequel to "Lonesome Dove." "I was in the rhythm of writing a book every fall," he explains, "so what could I have done if I didn't? Just lie there and take antidepressants and stare out the window? I wanted to get to the wound, and I did."

The book is remarkable not just because it came out of his physical and psychological crisis, but because it dealt with a nagging professional problem as well. McMurtry had dug himself into a literary hole with "Lonesome Dove," the "War and Peace" of cattle-drive novels. Before its publication in 1985, he was known as a contemporary novelist who made a point of denouncing unrealistic, romantic period novels about the frontier. The old myths were destructive, he argued, and they ignored the complex, urbanized realities of the modern West. Then he wrote "Lonesome Dove," an 843-page frontier epic that seemed to be exactly the sort of book he had been attacking...McMurtry thought he had written an anti-Western, one that critics and readers then perversely took to be the greatest Western ever.

"'Lonesome Dove' was a critical book," he still insists, "but that's not how it was perceived. The romance of the West is so powerful, you can't really swim against the current. Whatever truth about the West is printed, the legend is always more potent."
by Mark Horowitz

The Dude said...

I read that McMurtry had a quadruple bypass rather than a heart transplant. Who knows, both are serious, but the latter requires anti-rejection drugs and has other post-op complications.

The reason I mention this is because I had my mitral valve repaired and as with bypass surgery, the heart surgeon has to stop the patient's heart in order to do his job. I have written about the prep, and I've got some funny stories - I mean, if you can't laugh in the face of death you just don't have a sense of humor.

Anyway, during the surgery one's heart is stopped and the patient is kept alive on the heart-lung bypass machine. The plus side is that you remain alive, the down side is that the machine is less efficient at keeping your blood oxygenated than your original heart and lungs.

You get what is known as "pump head". One of the symptoms of that dread syndrome is the loss of words. I went through that. My words were clean gone. I used to know words then I didn't. I was alive, sure, but I missed my words. Words, glorious words, all gone.

This is a result of parts of your brain dying during surgery. I never asked my doc how long I was on the machine, why go looking for trouble, eh? But I made it through, and unlike Larry, I never got depressed. I surmise that part of my brain was deleted. I am okay with that.

Eventually my words came back, to some degree, and I guess Mr. McMurtry got back some of his ability to write, as well.

In any case, that's my perspective on open heart surgery, and I'll bet he was under the knife a lot longer than I was. Plus he lived to be 84, so there you have it.

The Dude said...

Huh - I guess I missed MamaM's comments while I was typing mine - 5 hours is a long damned time to be on the pump.

But the rupture part is real - technically one is dead. I have a friend who tells me I can never die because in Hebrews (Exodus 40:1-33) it is written "And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment:" And I already died, so I am good.

But your previous life is gone. Embrace the new and get on with it was my take. It has been 15 years since my surgery and the year 2005 was a clear line of demarcation for me.

MamaM said...

The fact that he was 5 hours on the heart-lung machine didn't register for me until I read your comment, SixtyG. During that time his body underwent a major sensory experience of invasive trauma that he was unable to specifically and consciously recall when he came to "back to life". And that's similar to what children who experience physical abuse during the first three years of their lives are left with--sensory experiences of sight, sound and touch etc., along with feelings of pain and fear that their body remembers. As an adult, he had more tools onboard to deal with that form of dis-integration, but it's still as you noted a major, life-changing event with consequences

Your description of your experience combined with what's been written about his, creates a clearer picture of the rupture that took place, physically, emotionally, and I dare say, spiritually. Loss of function and focus is no small thing for the body and mind to take into account and work through.

I'm currently reading a book entitled, Another Chance, and it sounds like that is what he and you both received and walked into. I know that's what I received, with a clear line of demarcation for me as well, in my own process of recovery.

I appreciate the post, Mumpsimius, on multiple levels once again, experiencing your links as Easter eggs

MamaM said...

I liked this too, on writing as a form of herding:

"The tradition I was born into was essentially nomadic, a herdsmen tradition, following animals across the earth. The bookshops are a form of ranching; instead of herding cattle, I herd books. Writing is a form of herding, too; I herd words into little paragraphlike clusters."

MamaM said...

The "Whose that Coot?" nature of the picture selected made me smile, while also appreciating the invite it offered to see it as a portrait telling another story, with his head framed by a square of light and books he valued surrounding him like the corridor of Life.

The Dude said...

Two things - my earliest memory was of my parents beating me when I was three. People wonder why I never much cared for them - well, anyone who can beat a three year old child are not worthy of consideration.

Second, during the operation there was no sensation of the passage of time. I walked into the prep area, awake, alert, they were stickin' catheters and needles and lines and cannulas and ports and all kinds of slicin' and dicin' goin' on, next thing I know it is the next day and what do you know - I must have died and gone to heaven - two beautiful brunette angels are telling me to cough up the intubation tube and to stand up.

I never did ask the doc how long his work took, but years later I talked to a cardiac care nurse and she told me that the line that runs from your aorta to the heart-lung bypass machine is the same diameter as a garden hose. Makes sense, when you think about it - you have to move a large volume of blood to stay alive.

I know I got a second chance, I have been aware of it (mostly) ever since, and try to make the most of this go-round.

As for "Whose that Coot?" I might have guessed Alexander Calder - he wore a similar outfit in his later days.

MamaM said...

If that's what went on at three, it's highly likely what went on at two (when ego starts to form and not listening and not paying attention and saying "no" comes into practice) was more of the same with no concrete memory of those events. "Fright without solution" is the term used to describe the conflict a child stuck in that kind of situation experiences. It's a conflict between a desire to approach and flee from a frightening parent and living with that doesn't engender much caring. That's left to be nurtured and developed elsewhere with others.

In checking out Calder's cootishness, I found this, which seemed a close second:

The Dude said...

I just searched online and can't find the picture, but once the sun comes up maybe I will have a chance to look through my books - I swear I have seen a picture of him looking very much like Dude McMurtry.

The only solution I came up with was to leave home early and often. Then, eventually my parents died. If nothing else they served as examples of how not to raise children. I never hit my sons, although one of them might have been better off had I swatted him, but I like to think that I broke the history of violence, at least in my line of the family.

ndspinelli said...

Sixty, Thanks for that painful memory. I was the beneficiary of the chain break in violence. My paternal grandmother was almost beaten to death several times by her first husband. This was in the early 1900's. Her brother got the Black Hand to run him out of the state of CT. Grandma had 3 daughters by him and vowed to never marry again. My grandfather wooed her like a stalker and got her to marry him. They had 3 sons, my old man the oldest. My grandfather was a gentle soul and taught his sons that men never hit women. That was against Italian culture. I was taught the same by my dad. If my sisters were taunting or hitting me I could not retaliate but needed to go to him and he handled it equitably. My grandfather saw the toll of violence on his wife and was determined it would not continue. You did the same. Beautiful, my man.