Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections at Sixty and Beyondby Larry McMurtry
Simon & Schuster, 208 pp., $21
Earlier this year when Larry McMurtry, Texas' preeminent novelist for almost 40 years, published his 23rd novel, Duane's Depressed, which wrapped up the Thalia trilogy that began with The Last Picture Show (1966) and continued with Texasville (1987), he announced that he had written his final novel. Barely had the loud, sad sigh escaped from Texas readers when Crazy Horse, a biography of the famous Sioux warrior, appeared. Now, hard on the hooves of those two books is Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections at Sixty and Beyond, a memoir on cowboying, writing, storytelling, reading and book collecting, aging, and fatherhood, and it reminds us once again why Larry McMurtry's shadow looms large over the Texas landscape.
McMurtry initially made his presence felt in nonfiction with his first essay collection, In a Narrow Grave (1968). There he wrote about growing up in northwest Texas and hearing the sounds of the passing cowboy god. As he listened to the wind blowing along the Brazos and across the Llano Estacado, McMurtry found "the music of departure -- faint, the god almost out of hearing." The concluding essay in that collection, "Take My Saddle From the Wall: A Valediction," is dazzling, one of the best Texas essays ever written. Since then, McMurtry's fiction has often focused on the moment when an old order gives way to a new, especially the old rural Southwest's uneasy transition to the new urban order. In this new book transitions are central, too, with the major transitional figure the author himself.
McMurtry in fact tells that after his 1991 heart bypass operation, he felt as though he had become someone separate from his previous life: "I was one person up until the morning of December 2, 1991, at which date I had quadruple-bypass surgery at the Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore. When I woke up from the operation, after about twelve hours in deep anesthesia, I began -- although I didn't realize it immediately -- my life as a different person -- my life as someone else."
The title image refers to the moment McMurtry recalls beginning these reflections. Sitting at the Dairy Queen on Highway 79 just south of Archer City, his hometown, and drinking a lime Dr. Pepper, a local specialty, he was also reading and contemplating the work of European literary critic Walter Benjamin, especially Benjamin's writing about the importance of the storyteller (written in 1936, the year of McMurtry's birth). As a result, McMurtry began writing a long piece titled "Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen." (The 83-page manuscript, until now unfinished and unpublished, is in the Southwestern Writers Collection at Southwest Texas State University.) For this new book, McMurtry extended and completed that manuscript.
He focuses on four major elements, devoting a chapter to each. The first chapter, "Place -- and the Memories of Place," moves from McMurtry reading Benjamin's essay "The Storyteller" to examining Archer City and his family's connection to the region. Listening to the talk at the Dairy Queen in 1980, the year of Archer City's centennial, he realized that DQs function as community centers and concluded that few real storytellers come in for a Dilly Bar. He also noted Benjamin's distinction between the communal act of storytelling and the isolating craft of novel writing, to which McMurtry has devoted much of his life.
The second chapter, "Reading," turns to what McMurtry dedicated his time to when he wasn't writing. Long lamenting that he grew up in a "bookless town in a bookless part of the state," McMurtry became attached to the power of books after a cousin left the six-year-old Larry a box of 19 children's books. He traces his development to the Archer City drugstore racks and then to his education by a special teacher at Rice named Alan McKillop, whom McMurtry calls a "great reader," who taught him that "literature, whether one wrote it, taught it, or just read it, could be a lifelong occupation."
In the third chapter, "Book Scouting," McMurtry recalls his life as a book scout and collector. He remembers his visit in 1954 to his first real bookstore, Barber's in Fort Worth, and recollects the bookstores of his life -- Brown's in Houston and Harper's in Dallas. One of the ironies of McMurtry's life is that he has now transformed Archer City, that bookless little town of 2,000 souls, into the site of probably the best rare bookstore west of the Mississippi.
"The End of the Cowboy -- The End of Fiction," chapter four, applies McMurtry's favorite theme of the dying craft to his own life and work. McMurtry examines his father's devotion to ranching as an essentially tragic enterprise, since it depended on the wrong animal, the imported cow, instead of the natural grazing creature of the plains, the buffalo. He then compares his own work of writing largely about the ranching west, often attempting to demythologize it (unsuccessfully, he notes), with his father's ranching and concludes: "When I consider my twenty and more books I sometimes feel the same uneasy breeze that my father felt as he contemplated the too meager acres where his own life began and ended. My achievement may be not much different from his; it may consist mainly of the good name I bore and the gifted and responsible son I will pass it on to. -- I now think it's likely that a lot of my writing about the cowboy was an attempt to understand my father's essentially tragic take on his own -- and human -- experience." Fathers and sons return throughout the book, which is dedicated to Austin singer-songwriter James McMurtry, Larry's son, to James' wife, Elena, and their son, Curtis, Larry's grandson.
Perhaps McMurtry's subtitle actually points to the overarching idea in this book. The book is about reflecting, pondering the labyrinth of memory and the lassoes of retrospection. It counters the trend that Paul Valéry points to in one of McMurtry's epigraphs: "Modern man no longer works at that which cannot be abbreviated." Here is Larry looking back, considering a life spent trying to herd words into a coherent story and books into clean, well-lighted places where human communities reflect on their significance.
Mark Busby is the director of the Center for the Study of the Southwest at Southwest Texas State University and is the author of Larry McMurtry and the West: An Ambivalent Relationship.