Long before he wrote Terms of Endearment, novelist Larry McMurtry was a bookish cowhand. The Texan turned his back on the cowboy life, then reinvented the Western with his Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove.
Archer City has one stoplight, which sits at the center of the town’s two main drags. At night there’s no traffic at all, and it doesn’t get much busier at high noon, the continuous shift from red to green like some existential joke. Shuttered stores line the streets, their paint whipped off by the ferocious West Texas wind. Godforsaken comes to mind. It’s not the first place you’d look for the man some consider America’s finest living author.
Larry McMurtry navigates his big boat of a Cadillac through these deserted streets, casually ticking off the highlights. ”All the problems in the world are here. There are crystal meth labs everywhere. Go in the pasture, you’ll see people cooking it. I’ve had nephews and nieces that were badly addicted, and we had to pack them off to rehab and more rehab and more rehab and it’s still going on to some extent.”
We pull into the parking lot of the local Dairy Queen — a guaranteed stop for visitors. Not only is it the only viable restaurant in town (and home to a justifiably famous local delicacy, the lime Dr Pepper), it’s a key player in several of McMurtry’s books — most recently in a sort-of autobiography, ”Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen.” The title perfectly sums up the author’s split personality: rapacious intellectual (Benjamin was an influential German philosopher who died in 1940) raised in a short-order world.
More than 40 years of McMurtry’s career decorate the DQ’s walls: framed dust jackets of some of his 26 novels (from such early books as ”Horseman,” ”Pass By,” to his Pulitzer Prize-winning ”Lonesome Dove,” to the latest, ”The Wandering Hill,” released in May) and articles about the filming of his third novel, ”The Last Picture Show,” which Peter Bogdanovich shot in Archer City in 1970. The DQ regulars make no particular fuss when the town’s Most Famous Citizen strolls in. This is West Texas, after all, where, as McMurtry puts it, ”anybody who is successful gets some envy and some resentment.” (The fact that his standing breakfast order is taped to the cash register must be considered the height of pretension.) ”It’s a little shaky at the moment,” he says of the staff. ”They can’t find good help since the local teenagers either fail the drug test or can’t work the cash register.”
The 67-year-old author is wearing what he usually wears: white polo shirt (untucked), blue jeans, and New Balance sneakers, with a sweater tied preppy-style around his shoulders. Not necessarily the outfit you’d expect to see on the man credited with single-handedly reviving the Western genre. He famously detests cowboys (at least those he wasn’t related to), cows, poultry, and horses. On the other hand, he once defined the cowboy personality as ”pride, stoicism, directness, restlessness, independence, all expressed with astringent humor.” Not a bad description of the author.
McMurtry speaks in a soft monotone, which only underscores his more caustic remarks; friends say there was more bite to him before his heart attack in 1991, but he’s still cranky enough to keep you on your toes. When I called him to arrange the details of our interview, he sounded about as enthusiastic as he looks in the photograph on the opposite page. ”I don’t remember most of my novels,” he said impatiently. ”I’m just warning you.” He then told me where to stay during my visit — at the Lonesome Dove Inn. I couldn’t help but laugh. ”Susan Sontag says I live in my own theme park,” he conceded. Then he hung up.