"Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen" by Larry McMurtry

The novelist's memoir is an elegy to vanishing breeds -- like novelists.

Published November 29, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Larry McMurtry has always been an elegist; nearly every one of his 23 prior books -- the bulk of them novels set amid the muted vistas and bald beige plains of McMurtry's West Texas homeland -- is suffused with a bluesy sense of waning, of loss at half-speed. In "Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen," his first dip into the green fields of memoir, McMurtry has applied those elegiac brush strokes to the canvas of his own life. The result is a lamentation not only for himself, as he wanders into his seventh decade, but for those like him: the storytellers, the griots, the troubadours of experience.

"Because of when and where I grew up, on the Great Plains just as the herding tradition was beginning to lose its vitality," McMurtry writes, "I have been interested all my life in vanishing breeds." Never has this fascination of his been so evident. Whatever subject he touches upon, even in promiscuous passing -- memory, antiquarian bookselling, his own oeuvre -- seems destined to fade gloomily away, like taillights vanishing into a blackened flat horizon.

The impetus for all this melancholy, according to McMurtry, was a summer morning 19 years ago that he spent inside the Archer City, Texas, Dairy Queen reading the German essayist Walter Benjamin's "The Storyteller" -- an examination of the Russian novelist Nikolay Leskov -- in Benjamin's collection "Illuminations." (Hence the insouciant title; the subtitle, "Reflections at Sixty and Beyond," pays quiet homage to Edmund Wilson's "A Piece of My Mind: Reflections at Sixty.") "On that morning in 1980," McMurtry writes, "Benjamin's tremendous elegy to the storyteller as a figure of critical importance in the human community prompted me to look around the room, at that hour of the morning lightly peopled with scattered groups of coffee drinkers, to see whether I could spot a loquacious villager who -- even at that late cultural hour -- might be telling a story. And if so, was anyone really listening?" What he found was, as you might guess, on both counts no.

The laments pile up: "Lore is being replaced by fact." "Then, there was no media -- now, it seems, there's no life." "The media is our memory now." "Real curiosity now gets little chance to develop -- it's smothered with information before it can draw a natural breath." There's a sour whiff of geezerdom to these appraisals, a generous dose of grandpa-grumbling. But just as ample is the supply of dead-on reckonings and critical felicities that stud the pages, which ramble breezily, like one of McMurtry's journeying characters, from thought to thought and from memory to memory. McMurtry has never been afraid in his fiction to permit a minor character to step downstage, perform a quick pirouette and then vanish. Here, meandering through his wide craggy mind, he writes no differently: Ideas come and go, like customers at the Dairy Queen.

As a critic, McMurtry is far too peripatetic; his desultory analysis of Benjamin amounts to something like a raveled sweater full of aimless tangled threads. Better to view him here, I think, as a memoirist -- and more just, as well, since the majority of the book is devoted more to his history and to that of his grandparents, first-generation Texas pioneers, than to the bricks and mortar of analysis. From this angle, McMurtry's thin book glitters: His recollections of Texas ranch life -- of cowpokes puzzling over why a local farmer milked his cows before committing suicide, of his own ineptitude as a cowboy, of his childhood fears of poultry and shrubs and, most of all, of his early forays into reading -- are gorgeously drawn and rife with the sort of nimbly vigilant details that have long elevated (and occasionally salvaged) his novels.

Funny -- another Western writer's memoirs, the late Louis L'Amour's "Education of a Wandering Man," kept floating into my mind as I trailed McMurtry backward through his life. Like McMurtry, L'Amour was an autodidact (more so, in truth), a prodigious and vastly catholic reader and a mourner of great bookshops gone, with a keen interest in the reading habits of other writers. L'Amour's personal library boasted 10,000 books; McMurtry's has 20,000.

Yet the two of them, shared surfaces notwithstanding, are in their work almost diametrically opposed. L'Amour, dismissed (more or less rightly) as a pulp writer, sought to prop up the cowpoke myths of the West. McMurtry, often dismissed as a Hollywood writer (less rightly, though the whir of an unseen film projector seems to accompany much of his later output), has throughout his long career sought to knock those myths down, to expose those ersatz illusions with a bright shine of truth -- or at least with the bland glare of the suburbs now sprawled like weeds across the West. L'Amour never needed to wax elegiac; in his mind the image of the West was fixed, like that of a dead child in its father's eye. McMurtry, however, has watched that child grow as closely as anyone has, and he isn't always pleased with the adult it's become.

"I know the Earth," wrote Pablo Neruda, "and I am sad." I know the West, McMurtry seems to be saying, and I am sad. Out of that melancholy, he has fashioned a sometimes beautiful ragbag of a book: a self-portrait in which the fading of the frontier is reflected in the fading of a life; and an elegy for everything he loves, that life included.

By Jonathan Miles

Jonathan Miles, a contributing editor at Men's Journal, writes regularly for Salon Books.

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