ACCORDING TO a story in Sunday’s Dallas Morning News, that’s what he told a group of luncheon guests at his Archer City ranch home. At 73, one of Texas’ best and most prolific writers of fiction considers that his gift is used up.
The last of his more than 30 novels, Rhino River, will be published on Aug. 11, reported News Writer Michael Granberry.
I have read most of McMurtry’s books, starting with his first novel, Horseman, Pass By, which was made into the Paul Newman-starring movie known as Hud.
My opinion of his body of work is greatly admiring; my opinion of the man, less so.
HIS LOW REGARD for East Texas was expressed early on in a 1968 non-fiction book, In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas. The Sunday report sent me to my copy to remind me of his harsh words.
In Chapter 5 he describes an exploratory car trip from Houston to the Rio Grande Valley and on north through the Panhandle to Dodge City, Kans. In Raymondville in the Valley he got into a conversation with an old man and a waitress at the Texas Moon Cafe.
McMurtry asked the waitress if there was anything interesting to see in her town. Not a good question. She replied that you had to be “pore or ignert’” to stay in a place like that.
THE OLD MAN allowed that it was better than Houston, where you might get killed on a freeway. The waitress responded that an “old widder woman” like her wasn’t likely to be too happy anywhere.
“Anyhow I wouldn’t trade Upshur County for this whole Valley down here. You ever been through Gladewater?” she asked.
McMurtry said he had been through Gladewater that spring and thought it was “lovely country.”
The writer must have just felt sorry for the waitress, because that was the last nice thing he said about East Texas in that book, or any place else that I’ve noticed.
AT THE END of the chapter McMurtry wrote that he would have liked also to have driven the state from east to west, Texarkana to El Paso, but added:
“Seeing the state whole, requires one, of course, to take some account of those dark portions of it which lie east of Dallas. I have had, admittedly, few opportunities to observe East Texans in their native habitat, and, since those of them who stray from beneath the pines soon learn to disguise their origins, I have had to learn what I can about the people there from the [fiction] of William Humphrey and William Goyen.”
With that he segues into a chapter on the “direct observation” he made of East Texas when he attended the 1962 annual Old Fiddler’s Reunion at Athens.
The Athens event was started about the same time as the Yamboree, and our Old Fiddler’s Contest has always attracted the same top-flight contestants — stars such as Texas Shorty and Johnny Gimble, whom McMurtry calls Grimble.
HERE’S A SAMPLE of what he thought he saw from the platform at the string band contest:
“Looking down on all those shifting faces it was hard not to lapse into generalization. I was looking down, not just on East Texas, but on the South. The people below me were Southern: they had more in common regionally with the people who might gather on the courthouse lawns of Georgia and Alabama than with the Texans who lived in Lubbock, San Antonio or El Paso. East Texans are moulded by the South, West Texans by the West, and the two cultures are no longer correspondent.
“Below me was a fair sampling of the region’s peasantry. It had not been dramatically destroyed, not smitten with a sword, but it was surely witnessing its own slow and ruinous depletion. In those people, the sap was drying, the seed withering.”
AND FOR A final twist of the dagger, there was this:
“Certainly East Texas womanhood was showing me its painful worst. All day I had not noticed a pretty woman around the bandstand, nor could I spot one in the evening crowd. . . There were a lot of town women around, but except for stiff permanent waves and more make-up, they looked like the country women.”
I had yet another reason to reinforce my reservations about McMurtry when I lined up to get him to autograph seven of the books he had written by 1986, when he was featured at the Governor’s Sesquicentennial Literary Conference at the University of North Texas in Denton, which he had attended.
Seated at a table where he was selling Lonesome Dove, his then most recent work, he didn’t hesitate to autograph my copies of The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment, Moving On and others.
But when my daughter Sally handed him a poster for the literary conference, he brushed her off brusquely, saying “I don’t sign ephemera.” I took that to mean he only autographs paper that he is making money from.
CONTRAST THAT attitude with the philosophy that Garrison Keillor of radio’s Prairie Home Companion expressed in a recent newspaper column:
“It’s not nice for the author to sit behind a table unless he is elderly or infirm — it makes him look like the security guy. The author is supposed to stand out in the open so that he can pose for pictures with anybody who wants to do that, and so that he can bend down and eyeball young children. The author is supposed to sign anything that anybody brings him. The author takes no breaks and he signs books until the line is gone.”
At a National Newspaper Association convention some years ago in Saint Paul, Minn., Keillor was a speaker and also sold and autographed his then-current book. True to his recent column, as I lined up with book to be autographed he was standing. The woman behind me grabbed my camera and took a photo of Garrison and me, which this fan displays in her house today.