Confessions of a realist

  • Article by: CHUCK HAGA , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 12, 2009 - 10:37 PM

The second book in a planned three-part memoir by the author of "Lonesome Dove."

Larry McMurtry in 1997

Photo: David Sanders, Los Angeles Times

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Like many people who reach a certain age, Larry McMurtry seems both proud of and mystified by his longevity, and a little amused.

He chose the title "Longevities" for the wry and telling preface to "Literary Life," the second installment of his planned three-part memoir.

"I have had the same postal box for 67 years," he notes in the preface. His family's first phone number was 9. Even more telling, "I write on a typewriter," he reports. Confesses? Brags?

His first memoir, "Books," dealt largely with McMurtry the bookman, buyer and seller. The third volume will cover his long, successful relationship with film, from the making of "Horseman, Pass By" into the movie "Hud," through "Brokeback Mountain," for which he shared an Academy Award.

In the same conversational, offhand style of "Books," in "Literary Life" he tells again about learning to read at 6 when a cousin on his way to war in 1942 gave him 19 books. He finished them in two weeks, not stopping to consider that books had authors.

Eventually, he learned that "literature, like life, was inconsistent. Authors of many good books will sometimes lose the gift and write just as many bad books, and usually any number of middling books. Some might say that I've done that myself, although I have my defenders."

We learn many tidbits about McMurtry, compensating some for the absence of deep insight into his craft, including that he is "fastidious" and dislikes reading books with markings. He visits fortunetellers, found the title for "Lonesome Dove" on an old Baptist church in Texas and was a "dominating" ping-pong presence at writers' conferences, having learned the game "from Hungarian jet pilots and Chinese mathematicians" while at Rice University. (Of writers' conferences: Most "involved lots of drinking and as much infidelity" as participants could manage.)

He seldom reads short stories and decided early on that he couldn't write them, destroying all 63 he attempted in creative writing courses. And it wasn't until he had published his fifth book, "All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers," that he knew he was a writer.

He read such New Journalists as Tom Wolfe and such postmodernists as Joseph Heller "avidly," but knew he would not run with them. He was "an old-fashioned realist" and remained so "through the composition of 29 old-fashioned novels, few of which have been much welcomed by reviewers, at least until 'Lonesome Dove' came loping along."

He was "unfashionable" as a young writer, but lucky to find sympathetic editors, including one who sent "Horseman, Pass By" up the publishing chain. Holding the just-published book in his hands in 1961, he insists he "felt no great surge of satisfaction," instead learning "that the best part of a writer's life is actually doing it, making up characters, filling the blank page, creating scenes."

Chuck Haga, a longtime Star Tribune reporter, now lives and writes in North Dakota.

  • related content

  • LITERARY LIFE by Larry McMurtry

  • LITERARY LIFE

    By: Larry McMurtry.

    Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 175 pages, $24.

    Review: McMurtry's second memoir focuses on his life as a writer and reader. Here you'll find tidbits -- he writes on a typewriter, he doesn't like short stories -- but no deep insights.

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