There are few writers more associated with Texas than Larry McMurtry, the “Last Picture Show” and “Lonesome Dove” author whose novels — frequently adapted for the screen — portrayed his home state in an often dark light. He had a love-hate relationship with his hometown of Archer City, and residents of the town returned the favor. He spent much of his life living away from the Lone Star State, perhaps wishing he knew how to quit it — but he never really could.
McMurtry, by all accounts, wasn’t easy to know, at least not to those outside his circle of friends. But in his new biography, “Larry McMurtry: A Life,” Tracy Daugherty paints a vivid picture of the novelist. His success might be partially due to geographical affinity — Daugherty grew up in Midland, a four-hour drive from Archer City, which isn’t long at all in Texas. But it’s also the result of dogged research and sharp analysis — this is a wonderfully absorbing book, on par with McMurtry’s own enduring work.
McMurtry, Daugherty writes, was born “into a dying way of life.” He came into the world in 1936, the son of a ranching family whose cattle lived on a humpbacked hill called Idiot Ridge. If his family entertained hopes of McMurtry joining the family business — he participated in his first cattle drive when he was 4 — those were soon dashed: “The boy was not going to be a cowpoke. He was too myopic to see cattle at a distance, on the horizon. And he ‘wasn’t particularly mean,’ his uncles said: a major liability on the plains.”
The ranching life might have held no appeal to McMurtry — he didn’t much care for animals — but the reading life definitely did. As a young man, he fell in love with “Madame Bovary” and “Don Quixote.” The latter grabbed his attention, Daugherty writes, “initially because it was about men traveling on horseback across a desolate plain.”
McMurtry left Archer City for college, first at Houston’s Rice Institute, then at North Texas State College in Denton, where he met Jo Scott, whom he would later marry. He wrote the initial drafts of his first two novels, “Horseman, Pass By” and “Leaving Cheyenne,” when he was 22. They were published despite clashes with his editor, and the former was adapted into the critical and commercial hit film “Hud,” starring Paul Newman in the title role.
A third novel, “The Last Picture Show,” followed in 1966, and it was this book that drew the ire of the residents of Archer City, which was fictionalized as Thalia in the novel. He and Jo divorced that same year, but he still followed her and their young son, James (now an acclaimed singer-songwriter), to Washington, D.C. It wasn’t an instant fit for McMurtry, who thought of the Georgetown neighborhood “as a fortress constructed for the preservation of caviar.” But he stayed there for years, eventually opening Booked Up, the store he would later revive in Archer City.
Later, McMurtry would leave D.C., bouncing between Los Angeles; Tucson, Ariz.; and Archer City. Daugherty writes that the author’s rootlessness was present even as a young man: “He seemed most at home in transit, between commitment and escape, neither denying nor embracing, loving and wanting to be left alone, ticking off another day’s set of miles.”
He was that way in matters of the heart. A running theme in Daugherty’s biography is McMurtry’s relationships with women, of which there were many. McMurtry wrote about sex quite often in his novels, but he seemed ambivalent about it in his own life; his courtships, such as they were, were often emotionally intense but physically chaste (or close to it). His “long-distance intimacies,” Daugherty writes, guaranteed “abiding friendships rather than sexual fidelity; continual longing shrouded in fantasy and memory.”
Daugherty doesn’t play at being a psychologist, but his insights into McMurtry’s personality, backed up by the novelist’s letters and books, are fascinating. He could be awkward, and his shyness was sometimes mistaken for rudeness. Jo’s descriptions of young McMurtry, Daugherty writes, “suggest that today he might be diagnosed as being ‘on the spectrum,’ single-mindedly focused and precocious in an uncanny way.”
Daugherty writes with sensitivity about McMurtry’s later years, which were consumed by writing, bookselling, and the success of his novel-turned-miniseries “Lonesome Dove.” McMurtry had mixed feelings about the book, which was criticized by Native readers for its stereotypes. McMurtry won the Pulitzer Prize for the novel, but acknowledged the objections: “‘Gone with the Wind’ is not a despicable book. It is also not a great book. And that is what I feel about ‘Lonesome Dove.’”
McMurtry’s later novels, for the most part, didn’t garner the critical acclaim of his earlier ones, but he emerged in the national spotlight for one of the last times in 2006, after winning the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay, along with his friend Diana Ossana, for “Brokeback Mountain.” Daugherty points out that his acceptance speech centered booksellers — a fitting tribute to a man who dedicated his life to literature.
McMurtry died in Tucson in 2021, and it would have been understandable if his admirers wondered if they would ever learn the full story of his life; this was not a man who wanted to be known. Daugherty’s biography, though, is an excellent analysis of a man who understood Texas like no other, perpetually “caught between city asphalt and the soil” — born “into a dying way of life,” undoubtedly, but determined to carve out his own.
LARRY MCMURTRY: A Life
By Tracy Daugherty
St. Martin’s, 560 pp., $35
Michael Schaub is a writer in Texas and a member of the board of the National Book Critics Circle.