Toward the end of the last century, I was attending a Christmas party in the TCU area where a sprinkling of professor types were holding forth on the subjects of the day. Having more than met my quota of holiday cheer and obligatory small talk with people I barely knew, I tried to signal to my wife that we needed to go and quick. Then the chatter turned to Larry McMurtry’s bookstore. That caught my lagging interest.
Nobody in this particular group had been, but they’d all heard the scuttlebutt that while Booked Up in Archer City was incredible, McMurtry was prickly and not all that friendly to the book lovers who made the long pilgrimage for a peek at Texas’ greatest living writer. After that, the conversation turned elsewhere, and I finally caught my wife’s eye. As you do, I filed the Booked Up information away, thinking it’d be a nice day trip someday. I almost put it off too long. In 2012, McMurtry auctioned off most of his books to not burden his family when he finally died, which he did at the age of 84 just a few days ago.
For this wannabe Texas writer, it was natural that Larry McMurtry would always loom large. After first being introduced to him through the movies of Hud and The Last Picture Show, I caught up with him as a bit player in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, living in my own Houston, dealing with acid-tripping hippies in Ken Kesey’s entourage. After that, I naturally began with his early works, Horseman, Pass By and The Last Picture Show. Then I graduated to Cadillac Jack and Terms of Endearment, the latter, in part at least, depicting my own Houston, showing it to be a place worthy of writing about. That was a revelation, showing us Texas writers that we could write about our complicated urban life.
About a decade after I’d heard about McMurtry’s bookstore, a fellow teacher friend and I finally made the pilgrimage. It was one of those North Texas summer days that at the same time tries our souls and makes it way too easy to be a weather forecaster in this area. (“Today will be miserably hot with temperatures ranging from 80 to 100.”) By 10 a.m., the temperature in “downtown” Archer City — that still looked very much like it did in the movie The Last Picture Show — was just hitting 90. My friend and I parked and made a quick beeline to McMurtry’s air-conditioned retreat. It was a mecca, all right, stretching over four buildings, well organized with books everywhere of all different subjects and genres.
My friend had carted along some old books he thought might be worth something and was counting on finding out from the owner himself. I shared what I’d heard that distant Christmas and told him not to get his hopes up that McMurtry would deign to talk to us mere peasants. For neither the first nor last time, I was proven wrong.
McMurtry couldn’t have been nicer to my friend. After he showed him the books, the owner asked politely how he’d gotten them. My friend explained he’d been left the books by a beloved grandfather. McMurtry then explained nicely that the books weren’t worth what my friend was hoping. Finally, instructing him that if they still held some sentimental value, he might be better off keeping them, which is what my friend decided to do.
After I bought a book, I hung around the cash register, idly flipping through various publications. My interest wasn’t in any literature but in listening to my new best buddy Larry, who far from being prickly was holding forth on any number of subjects, sounding like the natural-born raconteur that he was. I don’t remember every utterance, but I do recall him talking about his son, James, the well-known singer-songwriter, being in L.A., making an album.
I confess now that I acted like a Larry McMurtry groupie. In my defense, I saw myself as not going out of my way to treat Texas’ greatest living writer any different than I would anyone else, like the character in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, who lights the famous actor William Holden’s cigarette but never lets on he knows he’s famous.
That afternoon, as we drove from Thalia — I mean, Archer City — the hot air was making waves like mirages over the hotter-than-hell blacktop while I pondered how somebody hailing from such a small speck on a map could bring to life so many unforgettable characters: Homer Bannon, Hud, Ruth Popper, Aurora Greenway, Captain Woodrow Cull. I shook my head and decided it was a mystery to me, or, as McMurtry himself once put it, “Mystery is underrated, and understanding is overrated.” May he rest in peace.