RIP Larry McMurtry, the American West’s Prolific Novelist

Even if you haven’t read Larry McMurtry’s books, you know some of his stories. The author of the epic demystifier of the American cowboy, Lonesome Dove, McMurtry wrote dozens of books and films, winning an Oscar for the screenplay of Brokeback Mountain, based on Annie Proulx’s short story. He founded and ran one the country’s biggest independent bookstores, Booked Up, in his hometown of Archer City, Texas, where he lived most of his life.

McMurtry passed away Thursday at the age of 84.

He was born in Texas, the son of a rancher, but early on fell hard, not off a horse, but in love with books. McMurtry earned his undergraduate degree in English from North Texas State, then a MA from Rice, before heading west to Stanford to study under the great Wallace Stegner. McMurtry combined his own past growing up in a dusty cowboy town with Stegner’s clear-eyed realism about the West to demythologize it in his writing. There was beauty, yes, but grit and hardness and pain. It wasn’t all cowboys with gleaming six shooters and jangling studs; in fact, it wasn’t that at all.

My first taste of McMurtry wasn’t Lonesome Dove, but All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers, a semi-autobiographical novel of self-discovery by a young bookish man consumed with loving the West, but also desperately wanting to leave it. Any 20-something who liked Kerouac would have loved this overlooked classic.

His work was wide-ranging, as was his social life. He wore jeans and boots to accept his Oscar, rubbed elbows with literary and Hollywood elite, yet ran a bookstore in a squat, brick town in northwest Texas. For my money, few writers conjured that expansive beauty and joy and sense of wonder at the wide open West the way McMurtry did, even if he wasn’t the outdoorsy type. He showed you didn’t need to be to appreciate the West for what it was.

Here are some of his best books:

Lonesome Dove
All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers
Leaving Cheyenne

– Justin Housman


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