Horseman, Pass By, by Larry McMurtry

Horseman, Pass By was McMurtry’s first novel. It was the basis for Hud, the classic movie from 1963 about a small Texas cattle ranch facing a crisis. 

The screenplay didn’t change the setting or plot, but several improvements were made. Some unnecessary characters (a grandmother, some ranch hands) were eliminated. The role of Hud was greatly expanded (the horseman in the novel’s title refers to Hud’s father, not Hud). The black housekeeper Almea became the white housekeeper Alma. 

That last change was an improvement because it resulted in a more interesting, less predatory relationship between Hud and the housekeeper, a deeper relationship that doesn’t seem possible in the book, partly because of the way McMurtry writes what Almea says (“dese”, “dat”, “I needs to be leavin'” etc.).

This is one of those cases in which the film version is better than the original material.  (8/17/12)

Books: A Memoir by Larry McMurtry

Larry McMurtry has written at least 40 books, mostly novels, but he apparently prefers reading, buying and selling books more than writing them. While writing all of those books and reading many more, he became an antiquarian or secondhand bookseller. He currently operates a giant bookstore in Archer City, Texas, that holds roughly 300,000 volumes.

There is apparently a difference between running a used or secondhand bookstore and running an antiquarian one. At one point, McMurtry refers to a “low-end” book as one costing less than $500. He is primarily interested in locating (“scouting”), buying and selling the ones that aren’t low-end (e.g. $50,000 for a first edition of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom).

Books tells the story of McMurtry’s life with books (and magazines too). But it is a strangely written book. 

The chapters are almost all one or two pages long. He rambles. He frequently refers to buying this or that book from this or that bookseller while occasionally noting that not many people will want to read a book about buying books: “I’m aware that this kind of prattle is exactly the kind of prattle I ought to be avoiding, lest this become a narrative that is of interest only to bookmen”. 

And 50 pages later: “Here I am, thirty-four chapters into a book that I hope will interest the general or common reader — and yet why should these readers be interested in the the fact that in 1958 or so I paid Ted Brown $7.50 for a nice copy of The Anatomy of Melancholy?”

I kept reading, because he is such a good writer and there are enough interesting stories and observations in the book to make it worthwhile. 

This is my favorite anecdote. McMurtry came upon an English edition of Moby Dick that had belonged to an English author named Charles Reade. Mr. Reade once had an assignment to edit Moby Dick for English readers, making it shorter and easier to sell. The copy that McMurtry found had proposed edits written in it: “Charles Reade was not a man to be intimidated by a mere American classic. He began his editorial work by drawing a bold line through ‘Call me Ishmael'”.

Aside from so many references to books and authors I’ve never heard of, the most striking thing in Books is its account of McMurtry’s amazing productivity. He casually mentions that he has read a certain 12-volume set of diaries several times, in addition to reading apparently vast numbers of other books, many more than once. He did this while writing his own 50 or so books and screenplays. While traveling around the country looking for books to buy and owning and operating his own store.

It’s true that he has had a partner in the book business. But I don’t understand how one person could do all of this. It’s like a story from another age. Maybe he skips a lot of pages when he reads? And never sleeps or takes a shower?  (7/28/12)

The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry

The outstanding 1970 movie was based on this engaging, well-written novel. McMurtry used Archer City, Texas, where he grew up, as the model for the fictional town of Thalia, located exactly where Archer City is, about 25 miles south of Wichita Falls in the northeastern part of the state.

The book relates a year in the lives of three high school seniors, three married women and a man who owns the local movie theater, cafe and pool hall. It’s an absorbing story, partly because the main characters tend to be preoccupied with sex, either thinking about it, looking for it, or remembering it. It’s hard to believe that there was that much sexual activity going on in a small town in Texas in 1952, but maybe there wasn’t much else to do around there. Especially after the picture show closed down, soon after the arrival of television.

The movie, which was filmed in Archer City, is very faithful to the book, using a lot of the novel’s dialog. The key incidents are all included in the movie, although some of the sex was eliminated or toned down, including the scene with the cow.  (3/6/11)