- Understanding Larry McMurtry by Steven Frye
In his latest work Steven Frye’s Understanding Larry McMurtry offers a comprehensive overview of all of McMurtry’s novels. Linking McMurtry’s observations of the people and places in Archer County and Houston, Texas, with historical change in the Southwest, Frye traces the continuities and differences among the author’s literary themes, such as transience and loss of place, the old world displaced by the new, the revision of and challenge to the Western myth, rampant consumerism, and social issues often considered controversial, such as sexual identity.
The setting for the majority of McMurtry’s works is Texas, and Frye makes clear throughout his book that Texas is, for McMurtry, the American experience: “Hope, promise, and undefined desire, together with avarice and greed and want, are at the core of the national experience” (20). In his discussion of McMurtry’s early Westerns and the later Lonesome Dove saga, Frye emphasizes the tension between characters’ respect for and exploitation of the land. The rancher and the cowboy represent political and historical forces that “have altered the original grassland into cattle ranges and are the immediate beneficiaries of the displacement of the Native Americans and the slaughter of the American bison,” yet are “against the more modern capitalistic exploitation of Eastern financial interests and the even more destructive forces of the oil industry” (21). The oil industrialist represents the inevitable decay of the pastoral world, making way for commercial excess and environmental waste. Frye notes, however, that McMurtry transcends his own use of types to demonstrate characters’ interior lives, their love and sympathy for others, their tortured psychologies, and their lack of agency in a deterministic universe.
McMurtry’s Westerns have been extremely popular with readers who exalt the myth of the West, but Frye argues that both McMurtry’s early Westerns and his Lonesome Dove saga scrutinize the romantic Western myth—of a region that was never open since it has always been peopled, nor free because the common Americans who came to the West were first lured there by the promise of [End Page 88] moneyed interests already exploiting the land, and of the mythic hero’s virtues of strength, independence, hard work, and propensity for violence, represented instead as problematic heroes often confused and powerless within the circumstances that conscribe them. Further, the heroes of McMurtry’s early Westerns, like the frontier heroes in his Lonesome Dove saga, are “both the vanguard and the victim” of the process of transforming or eradicating an older way of life (77). The hero that McMurtry criticizes “represents the essential virtues of a way of life he willingly destroys, and in the end he is himself displaced in the process” (77). Although Frye’s fully developed discussion of themes in McMurtry’s Westerns is extremely insightful, a deep analysis of each text is lacking. This issue is likely because Frye’s book is, as he states in the introduction to his Understanding Cormac McCarthy (2011), a teaching volume.
Between McMurtry’s early and late Western works are the Thalia novels and the Houston trilogy. The Thalia novels take place in rural Texas, and Frye shows how they demonstrate the West’s transition to late modernity. The Last Picture Show, set in the 1960s, examines characters who connect with others only to harm one another in a hopeless quest to satisfy desires they cannot define. While younger characters experience confusion and anxiety associated with transitioning from child to teenager, adults are so disillusioned and exhausted that they find “moral considerations largely irrelevant” (38). Texasville, set in the 1980s, explores the damaging effects of rampant consumerism in place of meaning and purpose, which might otherwise be found in contemplation and self-discovery, while the third book in this series, Duane’s Depressed, is concerned with the twilight years of a Texasville character who realizes he has wasted his life in a constant quest to acquire things he doesn’t want or need. Frye notes that each of these works, including those in...