“Understanding Larry McMurtry,” by Steven Frye

Steven Frye

Reviewed by Johnnie Bernhard

Steven Frye’s Understanding Larry McMurtry is a scholarly overview of the Pulitzer-Prize winning author’s body of work. It’s part of the Understanding Contemporary American Literature series published by the University of South Carolina Press.

Founded by the late Professor Matthew J. Bruccoli, this series explores modern American writers. Bruccoli is quoted in the preface as saying that “[m]any willing readers lack an adequate understanding of how contemporary literature works; that is, of what the author is attempting to express and the means by which it is conveyed.”

Frye does an exceptional job examining McMurtry’s themes and archetypal characters who’re placed in the violent West of American mythology.

The characters Frye discusses from McMurtry’s Western novels are two or three generations removed from their pioneering ancestors, who “tamed” the land.  This new generation is lost and confused by life in the suburbs or small towns where once there was a wilder West.

A lifelong McMurtry fan, I’ve read all his work except the memoirs and Loop Group. His talent, I think, involves principally his sense of place and time.

And that does not mean just Texas.

If McMurtry were simply a regionalist, his distinction a result of the spaces his characters inhabit rather than of his craft, his books probably would not be made into major motion pictures or read across the globe.

His ability to capture universal human experiences in the mythical Old West, and in the nostalgic contemporary West, helps him to transcend borders and boundaries.  His tales of farms and ranches replaced by towns and cities could have taken place in the Midwest, New England, or the West Coast.  There is an underlying sadness to these settings, as there is to the characters who live in them.

McMurry reminds us, repeatedly, that nothing lasts forever; loneliness, disillusionment, and angst are constants, and humor and sex are just temporary remedies or distractions.

Frye says that “McMurtry would further develop throughout his long career, themes that reflect contemporary concerns about the instability of relationships and communities, even as those relationships and communities are portrayed as deeply and incalculably valuable.”

Too often today’s books simply rehash some formula of commercially successful narratives to satisfy the publishing industry. The book world is saturated with the mundane and predictable. Few living writers truly capture the evolution of America and its many cultures and communities.

McMurtry is a central figure in American literature precisely because he does so capture. His singular voice, moreover, blends the “realistic and romantic in a mode uniquely his own,” writes Frye. McMurtry stands with Fitzgerald, Harper Lee, Steinbeck, Hurston, Twain, and Faulkner in his talent for portraying unique times and places that are, or will be, forever gone.

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