Goodbye Old Paint: Remembering Larry McMurtry
t was a bright spring day about a year ago when I glanced down at my phone as I was coming home from walking the dog and saw a message from my friend Mary. It said that Larry McMurtry had died. I only glimpsed the message, like a ghost in my peripheral vision. But I didn’t pause to open it and check to see if I’d read it right. I knew in my bones that I had.
I sat down at the table and sobbed.
When I stopped crying, I looked up obituaries in Wichita Falls paper, hoping they’d have information on the funeral. I felt like I should be there. Unfortunately, there was nothing. I wished I could call my mother, but I still don’t have a line to the afterlife.
So I called my Aunt Sandra. I had not talked to her in almost a year, but she knew why I was calling before I even said hello.
She told me a story I already knew about the first time she discovered Larry McMurtry. She was living in California in the early 70s, crazy homesick for West Texas, when one day she walked past a copy of Moving On sitting on a table in the public library. She opened it up and saw on the very first page that the scene was set in Merkel, Texas which is only 30 miles from our hometown. She says it was like running into an old friend. She sat down right there and started reading.
As she told me that story, I could see the scene described on that first page of Moving On – Patsy and Jim at the rodeo in Merkel — as plainly as if it were the memory of something I lived, not something I read.
I didn’t tell her that it was my first husband who introduced me to Larry McMurtry because that doomed teenage marriage is still something my family hasn’t quite processed. But the day I met Stuart was a good one. I was a freshman at the University of Texas, hanging out with friends from West Texas, one of whom was Stuart’s younger brother. Stuart was visiting for the weekend. We ended up that afternoon in a local book store where Stuart found a used copy of Leaving Cheyenne, Larry McMurtry’s second novel. He snatched it off the shelf like it was a jewel and handed it to me on the spot. He told me he was buying it for me. That I had to read it. That I would love it. He was certain that he was giving me something precious.
In spite of his predictions, I was completely unprepared for how much I would love that book, which follows three characters in rural Texas from their youth in the early 1900s until their old age in the 1960s. What happens over a span of 60 years between Johnny, Molly, and Gid is more than a love triangle; it’s a portrait of rich and complex lives shaped by the same bleak landscape that shaped me. When I finished the book, I gave it to my mother with the same enthusiasm Stuart had when he gave it to me. My mother loved it as much as I did and gave it to her mother. The last time I saw that copy of Leaving Cheyenne was at my great-aunt Ola’s house. It was sitting on the kitchen table held together by a rubber band – no longer a bound book, just a collection of loose pages that had been read almost to death. Aunt Ola had just finished it and was going to give it to her daughter. Around the same time, my Aunt Sandra was pausing to look at a copy of Moving On in a library in California.
For all of us, Stuart included, discovering Larry McMurtry was a breakthrough. We were all readers. We loved books. But we had never read about people like us. Except maybe as caricatures or sidekicks. McMurtry was writing about characters who might easily have been us – or in the case of Leaving Cheyenne — our grandparents. Texans. Drawling rednecks. Farmers and ranchers. People who had tried to scratch a living and a life worth living out of the dirt. People who went to the rodeo all three nights in August come hell or high water (which was not likely); people who had experienced first-hand how hard the Church of Christ could be; who knew where the bootlegger lived, which old man molested little girls, and who could keep a secret. Larry McMurtry was telling our stories. And he did it with humor, compassion and honesty. He was not ridiculing his characters or reducing them to a stereotype only Slim Pickens could play, but he wasn’t sentimental either. He was telling our stories exactly the way we’d want them to be told. One page and we were hooked for life.
After Leaving Cheyenne, I read The Last Picture Show, which is set in Thalia, a dusty, faded, fictional town that has passed its insignificant peak. In the book (and in the film, which came out the next year) the town, which is as much a character as any of the people in the story, looked just like the windblown West Texas farm town where my parents grew up and where I spent my early years. Roby
All my life, I have seen the world I was born into disappearing right before my eyes. I can remember standing on the bottom rung of a fence on my grandmother’s farm at the age of seven, looking west over cotton fields at a view uninterrupted by trees, loving that place with all my heart, but saddled with a premonition of missing it, knowing somehow that I was going to be homesick for the rest of my life. One reason I cried when Larry McMurtry died is that I found the same sadness in those first books of his. And the same conflict. Conflict because there are plenty of things I don’t miss. The people who homesteaded farms in Texas were willing to do back breaking labor because that was the only way they could give their children a better chance. But the life wasn’t just hard in terms of labor. There was a coarseness and insensitivity, a brutishness that was difficult for people, like my grandmother and my Aunt Ola, who were guided by kindness and hoped for a gentler life.
the view from my grandmothers farm
In The Last Picture Show and Horseman, Pass By, McMurtry captures that darkness and the depth of the hurt it could cause. The fulcrum of The Last Picture Show is Sam the Lion who owns the movie theater, the café, and the pool hall and takes care of Billy, a mute boy who’s the same age as the teenagers at the center of the book. Sam the Lion is not the main character, but he is the moral authority of the book and, maybe of the whole McMurtry universe.
He is not a churchy guy. He drinks and curses and has sex, but there is no question that he embodies the light. In a pivotal scene, Duane and Sonny and some of the other boys bring Billy home after pitching in to buy him a prostitute. Billy, who’d be diagnosed as autistic today, is confused by the episode and has a bloody nose as a result of being slapped by the prostitute. When Sam the Lion gets to the bottom of what has happened, he says to Sonny and Duane and the others, “You boys can get on out of here. I don’t want to have no more to do with you. [. . . ] I’ve been around that kind of trashy behavior all my life. I’m getting tired of putting up with it.”
The day Larry McMurtry died in March of 2021 the country was still reeling over the attack on the Capitol. Searching the internet for news of his funeral, I kept running into articles trying to unravel what had happened on January 6. I found myself thinking about Sam the Lion and wishing that he could give all the people in that mob a good talking-to. He was a cowboy, probably someone a bunch of self-styled mavericks would look up to, but, like McMurtry, he was not a man who romanticized cowboys. He knew that independence, untempered by compassion, introspection, or concern for those who are less fortunate, is destructive. He may have pulled himself up by his bootstraps, but he hadn’t let that rob him of his humanity. He had a place in his community. And it wasn’t just as an entrepreneur. He was a servant, too – he took care of Billy, he mentored the reckless teenagers in his orbit, and he preserved the history of the place. He knew that a town is only as good as the people in it and the ties that bind them to each other.
The trouble with the myth of the cowboy is that it suggests the hero is a free agent, responsible foremost to his lonesome independence. But the myth is only a distorted reflection of one narrow aspect of reality. If independence takes the wrong turn, it’s not heroic. You end up with people who would mistreat the helpless for the sake of a laugh; people who thumb their nose at books, gentility, and kindness; bullies; and worse. I knew people like that growing up, but I also knew, thank God, people like Sam the Lion who set a different standard. I love Larry McMurtry for giving voice to that tenuous, mostly inarticulate morality and resistance to the cowboy myth that existed right alongside the myth. It’s tricky territory. Most storytellers, and most people, avoid the pitfalls by just embracing the myth and putting on a MAGA hat.
McMurtry, on the other hand, embraces and exposes the complexity. Not just in those first books, but throughout his career – in all the books about the fictional town of Thalia, the books about Houston, Lonesome Dove, the books about Duane, Brokeback Mountain, and the essays. His characters, especially the male protagonists, come with a critique embedded in their DNA.
I’ve seen Larry McMurtry speak several times, but the only time I’ve ever actually spoken to him was on my 24th birthday. I was visiting a friend in Washington D.C., and what I wanted for my birthday was a copy of Leaving Cheyenne. It was out of print when Stuart bought me that used copy four years earlier and was still out of print. The loose pages I’d last seen at my Aunt Ola’s house had disappeared. I had been trying to find another used copy for all those years. I thought maybe Larry McMurtry would have one. So, we went to his bookstore in Georgetown. When we got there McMurtry himself was coming out of the door. I don’t remember what I said to him, but I do remember what he said to me: “We’re closed.” I protested, said it was my birthday, or something to that effect. He said it again a little more gruffly, “We’re closed,” as he turned the key in the lock. Very curmudgeonly. I think I mumbled that I wanted a copy of Leaving Cheyenne, but maybe not loud enough for him to hear me. I was shy, and he was grumpy. Looking back, though, I think it illustrates a point. Larry McMurtry, himself, was not cliché. He was not exactly what I wanted that day in Georgetown. He was not a hero. No Hemingway-esque, larger-than-life magnetism. No glamorous celebrity who’s lost touch with reality. No easy target for a young, adoring fan. He was more like someone I might run into at the drugstore in Roby, Texas.
The portraits of Texas and Texans that always rub me wrong are the ones that stereotype us, that fail to see the variations, and those that don’t bother to actually study the accent. Depictions of Texans tend to cast us as either ignorant rednecks or noble cowboys. We are both, but we are also every shade of pain and beauty in between. If you don’t believe me, read Leaving Cheyenne.
Christy Mooresongwriter/blogger/ essayist
Christy Moore is a songwriter, blogger, and essayist who teaches writing at the University of Texas. She is currently a Master’s student in creative writing at Wilkes University.