As you can see, I’m on a bit of a Larry McMurtry kick:
The Literary Life – 4/5 Stars
Like his previous memoir that I also recently reviewed, The Literary Life, is hyper-focused on his writing career. For the most part, he doesn’t repeat any important stories, though he does trace over a few events and ideas that have come up before. I think to enjoy this one — which reviews of the other books suggest — you have to be interested in the publishing industry, be relatively aware of the figures around at the times he’s describing, and to like Larry McMurtry and have some familiarity of his work pre-Lonesome Dove.
The memoir is nothing if not laconic in its storytelling. For someone who has written 30 plus novels, three of which are at least 700 pages long, he’s pretty terse when he talks about his life, at least in these memoirs. He goes more at length in his very good book I will review later in this post.
McMurtry wrote his first novel when he was 21, published it about 24/25 and had three more published before he was 30. He also spent a lot of time teaching literature and writing at various universities. His novels began as small town Texas novels, grew into the kinds of discovering contemporary America of the 1970s, split between contemporary explorations of life and the Old West in the 1980s and 1990s, and more recently he’s been revisiting the Old West as a mythic place by writing and unwriting those myths.
In addition to all his writing, because he was president of PEN America, he was friends with a lot of famous writers, namely Susan Sontag, and he tells some very funny and salacious stories about literary conferences and agents and awards.
Hollywood – 4/5 Stars
If Larry McMurtry is to be believed, and why wouldn’t he be, he’s to blame for Tom Hanks inflicting us with his constant discussions of typewriters. Apparently Larry McMurtry famously has written all his work on typewriters and said as much in interviews around Brokeback Mountain’s fame. Because he won the Oscar for his writing for that film and famously showed up to the Oscars in jeans and a tux jacket, he put the germ of typewriters into Tom Hanks’s head and here we go.
So this book also focuses heavily on his Hollywood days. In part this is about how his books became movies, but more so how he became a kind of script maven because his novels had become successful movies. His first novel Horseman Pass By became the movie Hud and that offered him the chance to write a lot of screenplays. If you look at his IMDB page, you don’t see much, but apparently his job was to start the screenplay up, create characters and plot and setting, and then someone else would take over and create the structure of the narrative and the dialog. So even though there’s been a handful of movies based on his novels, he was only ever involved in a couple. So something like Brokeback Mountain was the sole creation of Larry McMurtry and his writing partner Diana Ossana (who was also a producer) from the work of Annie Proulx. It’s interesting because I remember him being around during that Oscar season and I recall thinking…oh, weird that’s the Lonesome Dove guy. I didn’t realize I would be here.
And so the same kinds of weird stories that pepper his The Literary Life, you get here talking about people in and around Hollywood. A lot about Peter Bogdanovich and Diane Keaton mostly.
Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen – 4/5 Stars
Here’s a great quote from this long essay in book form:
“COWBOYS, EARLY and late, have been influenced by their own imitations, in pulp fiction, in movies, in rodeo. For a time young cowboys aspired to own Larry Mahan boots as avidly as young basketball players aspire to own Air Jordans. There is a difference, though: rodeo remains a marginal sport, hermetic even; it produces few stars potent enough to sell a line of boots or a variant on the ever popular Levi’s. The designer Bill Blass recently remarked that no designer in history—not Chanel, not Dior, not Saint Laurent—had had an impact on world fashion even remotely comparable to that of the designer of the blue jean. “
This idea that McMurtry describes here is that cowboys themselves are a kind of simulacrum, where there is no actual image from which the image itself is drawn. So it’s a kind of almost tautological cultural touchstone. And of course what’s interesting is that the full realization of the cowboy is not totally drawn from the dime novels that came out in the late 1800s, but continued to develop throughout the 20th century in novels and film. There’s a lot of really good novels and films that also deal with these issues: Ron Hanson’s Desperadoes, Westworld, and even Three Amigos.
The rest of this essay and memoir is looking back on his home town and the history that developed there, if at all, and trying to account for it, his space within it, and how this all developed into his novels and what effect if any those novels have on that space.
Oh, What a Slaughter! – 3/5 Stars
I was recently in a Memorial Day program at a high school, one that is decidedly patriotic about such things, and there was a slideshow. The slides consisted of students from AP Geography and other geography classes creating slides of their family who were servicepeople. The slides were a strange cacophony of images and color. So the result hundreds of clashing slides alongside overly loud and poorly edited music. It was earnest and well-meaning, but it was a mess. For each conflict that the US has been involved there was a introductory slide that gave the name of the conflict in cartoonish font and then a popup of the “War Dead”. It was horrifying.
Anyway, in this book about slaughters in the West, none of which had numbers even remotely close the numbers in that slide show, Larry McMurtry spends a lot of time dissecting the various accounts and coming up with something like a consensus look. It’s a perfectly fine book, but not one that lends itself to the author’s talents. So this book gets read because he’s a well-known writer, but he’s not the writer best suited to this topic…in contrast to say his memoirs and essays about Hollywood and the West.
Film Flam – 3/5 Stars
Because I read Hollywood, this collection is only so good. He repeats himself here, or rather there, but I read that one first. One thing he does really well is talk about the nature of being a writer in Hollywood and how that has a kind of stepchild relationship to film. He himself states that the ideal situation would be for directors to write their own scripts. But I know from reading Sidney Lumet’s Hollywood memoir that not every director is an “artist” or that concerned about that kind of control. Lumet claims in his book that having scripts more or less ready-made allowed him to move faster and produce more. And the result is that sometimes the movies are great (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, The Pawnbroker) and the rest are mostly just ok. He talks about making plenty of movies for the paycheck. I bring in Lumet because McMurtry references a couple of those films, these essays occupy about the same time period, and because McMurtry says that not only was Hollywood a paying for gig for him he also faced a lot of sentiment that writers should write for art and not worry about money. This coming from both producers who don’t want to pay that much and from writers who want to hegemonize the idea of writing. I also thought about Lumet because McMurtry spends one essay thinking through difficult novels to film. Most of McMurtry’s books are very filmable…he mostly writes in third-person, the writing is cinematic and spare, he uses conventions in plot from time to time, and the characters are well-realized and so easily filmed. He offers up EL Doctorow’s novel Ragtime as a novel that Doctorow was hired to adapt and who turned in a 350 page draft, about three times too long. He also mentions another Doctorow novel The Book of Daniel, about the orphaned son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, as a potentially unfilmable novel. Lumet DID make that movie, and it’s merely ok. All of this also because Sidney Lumet made a version of McMurtry’s second novel Leaving Cheyenne and McMurtry hated it.
Another interesting essay in this collection which I feel has connections to Netflix and Moviepass is about the emotional toll of watching a long list of bland and sentimental movies on one’s psyche. I thought it had a funny connection to how many schlocky mediocre films get watched now as a result of these services.