Three Days in McMurtryville

Photo: Dan Winters

There's a restaurant crisis in Archer City, Texas. This is what Larry McMurtry is explaining to me as we drive the 25 miles to Wichita Falls on a 110-degree afternoon in August. The Archer City Dairy Queen, he says, is now owned by an evil woman with an empire of 27 Dairy Queens throughout Texas. Recently she fired the only two employees who could cook. This leaves the local café, which he describes as poisonous. "They had a good chef when they first opened, but he left after a few weeks. I guess Archer City didn't provide enough of a challenge." Consequently we're doing 75 through this flat West Texas ranchland in order to have lunch at Sevi's, the only decent Mexican restaurant in Wichita Falls, a town with a grand total of four nonpoisonous eating establishments: Sevi's; a barbecue cafeteria called the Branding Iron; McBride's, a steak house; and the catfish restaurant, which is closed on Mondays.

"It's odd," I say as scraggly mesquite shrubs flash by in a blur. "I've never interviewed someone I know before."

"Your journalistic objectivity will be compromised," McMurtry replies, but adds that he's never particularly believed in journalistic objectivity anyway. Not that it matters much -- we do manage to sit down for a brief formal interview later that afternoon, but mostly we spend a few days knocking around his giant Archer City bookstore, Booked Up, and making road trips to Wichita Falls for meals.

At Sevi's, a hole-in-the-wall on a side street, the 63-year-old writer orders his usual, the beef enchilada plate, then is argued out of it by the waitress, who is worried that it's too much food for him. He never finishes the whole thing. "I'll make you something smaller," she offers. He agrees to this. I have the beef enchilada plate, too, opting for the full-size portion. The enchiladas, when they appear, are quite good -- classic Tex-Mex of the sort I grew up on.

Over lunch we talk generally about the bookstore, or "book town" as it's now known (it spreads over four separate buildings), and also about McMurtry's first store, the original Booked Up in Washington, D.C., where I worked for a couple of years in the early '90s. We have other connections, too. McMurtry has been a friend of my family's for years. He was a Wallace Stegner fellow in creative writing at Stanford in 1960-61, and I was one in 1993-94. Sitting there in Sevi's, I feel as though I'm interviewing a somewhat distant but generally friendly uncle. Nevertheless, I go to town on the magazine's expense account and buy McMurtry his enchiladas. Journalistic purity (including two large iced teas) comes to $7.45. McMurtry counters by buying me a mint.

On the drive back to Archer City, he points out a storage shed set back from the highway. It's full of collectible Barbies and G.I. Joes, which he now owns (or semi-owns; the explanation is complicated) as a result of a former employee's somewhat lax attitude toward the Booked Up bank account. This was not the first bookstore employee to take advantage of the owner's easygoing management style. One apparently ran drugs in the company van, and another got caught up in a scam involving an industrial screw company.

At one point in the late 1960s, McMurtry was given a sweatshirt with the words MINOR REGIONAL NOVELIST stenciled across the chest. I never actually saw this sweatshirt myself, but I heard about it from my mother and later saw pictures of him wearing it in a photo spread from the Houston Post that my father kept around for some reason. The photos showed McMurtry typing, McMurtry playing pool, McMurtry thoughtfully pondering a book -- all activities that a minor regional novelist can reasonably be expected to take part in, evidently.

For me that sweatshirt implies a kind of ironic diffidence toward the vagaries of public attention, but also a certain measure of pride -- regional pride, I suppose, and pride at being a novelist as well. The sort of attitude, maybe, that you'd expect from a guy who keeps his laminated Academy Award nomination for the screenplay of The Last Picture Show hanging in the bathroom of his bookstore. At least that was what crossed my mind one morning in 1991 when I was standing in the bathroom of McMurtry's Washington bookstore looking at the nomination.

By then, the minor regional novelist wasn't so minor anymore, partly thanks to Lonesome Dove, an 843-page cattle-drive epic of surprising emotional gravity that he published in 1985. Not that his previous 10 books hadn't done well. Along with The Last Picture Show, the list includes Terms of Endearment and Horseman, Pass By (filmed as Hud) and All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers, a quirkily accurate portrait of Houston in the late '60s and my personal favorite. But Lonesome Dove was a different matter. It sat on the bestseller lists for months, won a Pulitzer Prize, got turned into a high-profile tv miniseries and propelled its author into that rarefied realm encompassing both literary respect and public recognition.

That morning in 1991, I was standing there in the Booked Up bathroom idly pondering McMurtry's Academy Award nomination because I was starting work there (also because I'd had a 24-ounce cup of coffee about an hour before). Only six weeks earlier, I'd been living in Boston, wondering what the hell to do with myself after finishing an MA in English at Boston University. I'd gotten a call from my mother in Houston mentioning that McMurtry might want to hire me, then a call from McMurtry soon after offering me a job. I would be paid a reasonable salary, plus $150 a month for expenses. I wasn't sure what those expenses were meant to be, but it seemed assumed that a young person such as myself would have expenses and they would run to $150 a month. I said yes, packed up my stuff and moved to Washington.

Celebrity, even moderate celebrity, is a peculiar state. People assume they have the right to know you. (Some people even assume they have the right to be you -- McMurtry was plagued by impostors during the height of Lonesome Dove's popularity, and we'd hear stories at Booked Up about how another one had surfaced, seducing women at bars in Dallas or Tucson.) As McMurtry notes one afternoon while we're sitting in the dining room of his house in Archer City (the largest of the town's three mansions), "It's a celebrity culture now, and celebrities count, and everybody else doesn't. In the publishing world, it seems like celebrity has become significance -- and if you don't have celebrity, you don't have significance." And while it's true that the most famous novelist on the planet, whoever that might be, burns at a significantly lower wattage than a mid-level tv star, even mild celebrity can have a warping effect on your immediate environment.

For example: on this trip I'm staying in the Lonesome Dove Inn, in the Terms of Endearment suite, which was vacated only this morning by a gang of Nashville investors interested in turning Lonesome Dove into a Broadway musical. One former high-school classmate of McMurtry's has published a book claiming that she is the basis for Jacy Farrow, one of the characters in The Last Picture Show. The restaurant across from Booked Up is named Karla's Café, after the character from Texasville, the sequel to The Last Picture Show. And in Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, McMurtry's forthcoming memoir of growing up in rural Texas, he quotes his friend Susan Sontag remarking that he seems to be living in his own theme park -- call it McMurtryville. It's easy to see what she means.

Friendships run the risk of getting warped, too. At one point McMurtry mentions that this is only the second time he's let a friend write a profile of him. The last time, about 25 years ago, the writer went into a lengthy description of McMurtry sitting in a convertible on Hollywood Boulevard, kissing a starlet -- an account not simply exaggerated but completely imagined. "I may have been loading books into a truck on Hollywood Boulevard, but that was about it," McMurtry explains. The experience was clearly one that lingers in memory. To me it seems cautionary.

But as I said, celebrity is a peculiar state. When we think of the term, we think of glossy magazines, of television, of flashbulbs going off; but in some sense we also have our private celebrities. These are the people on the fringes of our lives who seem somehow larger than life, more romantic than real -- my great-aunt Edith's second husband Eulich, for instance, who smuggled diamonds out of 1940s Poland in his teeth. Or, ironically, McMurtry, who to many is a conventional celebrity. But when I was very small, he lived in Houston, just another adult among the many my parents knew. They met each other at Stanford, where McMurtry was on a Stegner fellowship during the years my father was working on his PhD. Later he and my father both taught in the English department at Rice University. Still later, after McMurtry had moved to Washington and my parents' contact with him diminished, he acquired in my mind a kind of aura. He moved, it seemed to me as a teenager, on a glamorous plane. Rumors surfaced now and then. Involved with Diane Keaton. Living in Europe. Selling screenplays. And, of course, publishing novels. Many of the rumors were just that, rumors, but the novels weren't: Moving On, Cadillac Jack, Somebody's Darling, The Desert Rose, eventually Lonesome Dove. They accumulated on the bookshelves in our living room, bulletins from a different sort of life.

Of course, that private celebrity we assign to people we know feeds on distance. Fairly soon after arriving for work that first day at Booked Up, the enigmatic figure my parents had once known metamorphosed into a person, Larry, the guy across the desk in an old blue shirt eating a cup of chili from the Food Mart and studying a book catalog from Bernard Quaritch in London. In no way was this a diminishment. I'd call it a recovery of reality.

The book trade involves a lot of heavy lifting. Most of my time at Booked Up was spent hauling boxes of books from floor to floor, unpacking boxes of books, shelving books, alphabetizing books, packing books for shipment. It sounds dull, but if you are a book lover, a year spent working at a place like Booked Up is a feast. Not for what you already know, or know you want to learn, but for what you've never imagined. Ezra Pound raving in typed letters from 1934 (Dear sir and incidentally gorrdamnnit -- This is heinous! But with the scum of Judaea in the treasury . . . ), the illegally printed double-volume paperback of J.D. Salinger's uncollected fiction (snapped up by a West Coast book dealer almost instantly), an entire compendium of Olympia Press erotica (some of it very outré indeed), R.G. Wasson's great mycological book, Soma: the Divine Mushroom of Immortality (the only greater mushroom book being his Russia: Mushrooms and History), the hodgepodge collection of incunabula, books from the dawn of printing, lining the upstairs hall. On and on. Not to mention some oddball items, too -- at one point I unpacked a collection of 275 mammal skulls McMurtry had purchased from a fellow book dealer, who had acquired them from a retired anatomy professor in Pennsylvania. He still has them, in the library behind his Archer City home.

It's also, I should note, sobering -- or salutary -- for a young writer who has only just had his first short story accepted by a literary magazine to spend so much time among so many forgotten books. Shelf after shelf after shelf of them. I remember on several occasions picking up yet another copy of The Honey Badger by Robert Ruark (MILLIONS OF COPIES SOLD! splashed across the dust jacket) and thinking how ephemeral it could be, literary success. What happened to those millions? Who the hell reads The Honey Badger now? And I was surprised, zipping through an advance copy of Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen in my king-size bed in the Terms of Endearment suite, to find McMurtry describing this exact thought.

I ask him about it. "Well, I can certainly remember having that feeling at Acres of Books in Cincinnati, where there really were 250,000 volumes of fiction," he replies. "Say you were looking for minor writers of the 1855-to-1950 period. Well, there would be thousands of them. And you would just know, you would get this feeling as you went down the row, that none of these books was ever going to be read again. They'd all started out bright with hope, and somebody had really invested some energy in them, maybe even had a public, and now they were just dead. Never to come again."

In the late summer of 1991, I found myself behind the wheel of a 20-foot Ryder truck loaded down with about 800 boxes of books. I was hauling them from Booked Up in D.C. to our sister store, then called The Blue Pig, in Archer City. I didn't know it at the time, but that load of books was an early step in the transformation of the tiny town into a serious book center.

McMurtry had decided to greatly expand his Texas enterprise. He changed the name of The Blue Pig to Booked Up and went about creating a book town, loosely modeled on the bibliophile's mecca of Hay-on-Wye in Wales. The project was interrupted in 1991 by a heart attack, subsequent bypass surgery and a long and debilitating depression -- all of which are examined in Walter Benjamin. But the urge to bring hundreds of thousands of books to Archer City survived. "I learned early that the kink in my attachment to Archer County, and West Texas in general, was that the place was bookless," he writes. "This problem kept me elsewhere for 30 or so years of my life, but I solved it eventually by bringing about a quarter of a million books to this little town -- 20,000 of my own and about 200,000 or so in the bookshops that I opened here." Customers have followed: book dealers from all over the country, as well as England, Europe, Australia; academics and university librarians; a few wandering Lonesome Dove fanatics; as well as people who simply like books and are curious.

It could almost make you believe that literature isn't really in decline -- although McMurtry seems pessimistic. "If the pie is public attention, then literature seems to get a smaller and smaller slice of it," he tells me. Yet after a moment he reconsiders. "I don't know whether that's really true, though. More and more books are sold; people are still reading. The evidence of that is plain in my own bookshop every day. A few hundred people a week pass through this remote little town just to look for books they want to read."

We get into a discussion of the state of publishing, and McMurtry notes that the industry's culture has changed since he went into it in the mid-'50s. "The emphasis now is not four or five editors picking books they really like and promoting them," he says. "It's much more complicated, much more global." The role of the writer -- especially the literary, not-bestselling writer -- is different, too. "When I was president of PEN [the New York-based writers' organization]," he continues, "we had meetings and debates about the fate of the 'mid-list' writer. But I'd always been a mid-list writer. I was a mid-list writer for 10 books. Lonesome Dove is the only book that lifted me out of the mid-list, and in a way it warped my career. Now I'm back in the mid-list, essentially, after 10 years of having Lonesome Dove's coattails sort of pull me up."

But is this situation really new? I mention feeling heartened, for instance, by the fact that many of the modernist classics, books like Joyce's Ulysses, were originally published in very small editions -- fewer than a thousand copies. "You know," he replies, "I think if you're really going to spend your life writing, it's a serious undertaking. It's a high estate. You need a certain capacity for believing that quality will eventually prevail. But I think it does."

That comment about literature being a high estate lingers. It also puts me in mind of another passage from Walter Benjamin, recounting McMurtry's time as a Stegner fellow, studying with Malcolm Cowley and Frank O'Connor and simmering, as Stegner fellows do, in the vast potluck of literary lore. "Gossip about the great," he writes, "does as much as anything to pull young writers deeper into the great stream of literary endeavor -- it gives them something to hold in their imaginations as they live in those grubby garage apartments, scratching out their first poems or fictions."

The last afternoon I'm in town, we head back into Wichita Falls for lunch at the barbecue place. It's very good -- neck and neck with Sevi's, I'd say. On the way home we discuss the restaurant situation a little more. I inquire about the steak house in Ponder, where I ate the last time I visited Archer City, eight years ago. McMurtry says it's still there, but he's concerned. They're expanding it, and he suspects the quality will decline. I mention that they had good pies. "They have very good pies," he agrees.

"I had a piece of chocolate cream pie there that was terrific."

"Their chocolate cream pie is very, very good," he says. "And they have a lot of pies, a lot of different kinds of pie."

The Texas plains spread out ahead of us in the afternoon light, even as my thoughts circle back to 1991, to D.C. The truth, it occurs to me, is that if there was any actual gossip about the great while I was at Booked Up, it was between the covers of all those endless ranks of books. Sure there was the dazzle of fame and good fortune, the bright light of literary success, but in retrospect it is the book-by-book labor of the trade that fills my memory. Or maybe that plus a dawning comprehension of the word-by-word labor of writing.

"I move every box, you know," McMurtry had told me. "I empty it and sort it. And even if I wasn't moving boxes, I'd be out scouting in bookstores or moving around. The writing part is the sedentary part of your life. It's always seemed odd to me, since I came out of a working-class family. You got up and you went to work, then you got through work and you sat down. The way it is with writing, since I've always worked early in the morning, is that you get up and sit down. It doesn't feel like work," he finishes, "though it is."

Work: one morning at Booked Up, coming downstairs with a box of books, and pausing to listen. McMurtry was writing on an old Hermes manual typewriter (he still has six or seven backup typewriters in various states of repair lined up in his living room in Archer City). I stood there in the doorway to his downstairs apartment with a box of books in my arms, hearing that brappata-brappata-brap of the keys striking paper. Brappata-brap. Whatever I was hearing would, in a year or so, become an actual book. I suspect I listened partly out of a hope for some sort of sympathetic magic, as if by standing there within earshot some of that intangible something that makes for a publishable novel might be transmitted to me, like radio waves. But the box I was carrying was heavy, and there were 35 more just like it upstairs. I kept moving, and shut the door behind me.

Ray Isle, a former Stegner fellow in creative writing, works for a wine importer in New York City.