by Nicholas Lemann
STREETS OF LAREDO
Simon & Schuster, $25.00.
LARRY MCMURTRY, now in his fourth decade of novel-writing, began his career drawing upon subjects that were in accord with both his own ranch-country upbringing and what was officially considered to be the proper subject of Texas fiction—namely, cowboy life on the Great Plains. But he quickly began to rebel against the aesthetic dicta of the Texas Institute of Letters, a kind of Académie Françaiseon-the-Brazos whose leading members used to have pretty definite ideas about what a real Texas writer’s main themes ought to be.
McMurtry’s third novel, The Last Picture Show, had a rural setting, but its tone was a mix of elegy and exposé (for example, in one scene a troop of high school boys buggered a heifer). He followed that with a book of essays, In a Narrow Grave, which contained a daring and hilarious debunking of the holy trinity of Texas literature, J. Frank Dobie, Roy Bedichek, and Walter Prescott Webb. Then McMurtry—always a model of West Texas industriousness —rapidly published three long novels set in Houston, which was the ultimate heresy: cities were considered fundamentally un-Texan, un-western. In 1981 he wrote a dyspeptic essay in The Texas Observer in which he reiterated his long-standing conviction that “the country—or Western, or cowboy— myth” had become “an inhibiting, rather than a creative, factor in our literary life,” and that “there was really no more that needed to be said about it.” The future of Texas literature was urban: “Now what we need is a Balzac, a Dickens, even a Dreiser.”
The muse is ungovernable, though, and soon McMurtry was coming out with novels about the rural West again. The best-known and arguably also the best of all his books, Lonesome Dove (1985), was not just rural and western, it was a heroic (if offhandedly so) historical novel about a cattle drive—precisely what the McMurtry of the 1981 essay would have sneered at.
Then came another unforeseen development. McMurtry had always been able to maintain his position as the bad boy of western letters by keeping his fictional pictures deliberately unrosy, with plenty of boredom, disease, and bad food, bad sex, and bad weather. In the mid-1980s a school of “new western historians” emerged, led by the funny, theatrical Patricia Nelson Limerick, of the University of Colorado, to insist that the Old West had been much more completely terrible chan anyone previously had imagined. Though the new western historians didn’t attack McMurtry, he found himself in effect on the other side of the line they had drawn in the sand, over with J. Frank Dobie and Louis L’Amour. (It must have been particularly galling for McMurtry, who is one of the few male novelists who have consistently been able to create threedimensional female characters, that a central accusation of the new western historians is that western writers have purveyed an exclusively male vision.) In a 1990 essay in The New Republic he complained that the new western historians were stating the obvious when they wrote about “how violent, how terrible, and how hard winning the West actually was,” and made a tightly limited defense of Old Westerners on the grounds of their appealing “Quixotism”: their tenacity, despite much countervailing reality, in clinging to “the dream of the West as a place of freedom and opportunity.”
In undertaking, as he has with Streets of Laredo, to produce a sequel to Lonesome Dove, McMurtry is, then, in a tricky position—just the kind of tricky position he’d have fun putting one of his characters into. He’s the old campaigner returning ro the scene of his greatest triumph, but conditions have changed in such a way that the triumph would appear to be impossible to repeat. In recent years McMurtry has produced sequels to two earlier books, The Last Picture Show and Terms of Endearment; both of the earlier books set the world on fire, but neither of the sequels did. McMurtry had made following up Lonesome Dove an especially difficult job by killing off in the end its best character, Augustus McCrae, a retired Texas Ranger with a Twain-like volubility and humor. And Patricia Limerick is on the trail, so to speak, of white male western writers like him, waiting for them to slip into the attitude that McMurtry, making fun of her, calls “Triumphalist.”
MCMURTRY NOVEES always carry a strong sense of the way in which fiction develops an independent life as it’s being written: they begin with a situation whose intellectual and narrative purpose is plain, and then veer off into deeper territory that seems less planned than felt. In the early chapters of Streets of Laredo, McMurtry seems to have it in mind to evoke the period after the defeat of the Indians and the fencing of the open range, when eastern capitalism turned the West into a colony—and to demonstrate that he understands western violence, sexism, and despoliation far better than the new western historians do. Taciturn, valorous Woodrow Call, McCrae’s partner, now an aging professional bounty hunter, is hired by the railroad, in the person of an accountant from Brooklyn, to kill a Mexican bandit named Joey Garza, a remorseless murderer who uses high-tech weaponry—a rifle with a telescopic sight—to hold up trains along the border.
The presence of the accountant provides the Gilded Age historical reverberations McMurtry is after. The location of the robberies sets the book in one of the poorest, most barren and desperate parts of the West—the transPecos, which, though parts of it are beautiful to the contemporary eye, even today feels like the end of the earth. The plot device gives the book a classic western’s rhythm, the long buildup to a climactic showdown.
In the early going McMurtry occasionally lets himself slip into uncharacteristic pulpy sentimentality (“Pea Eye loved little Laurie with all his heart"; “She was eager for him, more eager than she had ever been before”). Also, he has to work out the problem of having a main character who doesn’t talk, which he does through interior monologues and by surrounding Call with people who do talk; the real historical figures of Charles Goodnight and Judge Roy Bean sub for Gus McCrae as purveyors of gruff humor. Before long McMurtry has settled into a loping, downhome, familiar pace—obviously he’s still comfortable riding the range. Every so often he ladles out some matter-offactly gruesome material about how extremely non-Triumphalist the West really was:
The bullet had taken off much of the cowboy’s skull. The man wore a large pistol, which Joey used to smash the skull open a little more.
Then he took a cup from the dead man’s saddlebags and filled it with his brains. When it was darker still, he walked into town, holding the cup full of brains. He went to the jail and carefully set the cup inside the door. The deputy who had only one ear was there, but he had his boots off and was sleeping soundly. Joey planned to cut the man’s throat, if he woke up, but he didn’t wake up, and on impulse, Joey stole his boots. He left the dead cowboy’s false teeth in the cup of brains. Then he rode off happily.
This has a slightly unreal, cartoonish quality—true horror doesn’t seem to be the intention. But as Streets of Laredo develops internal momentum, its central concerns become much more primal and deadly: it’s a war novel, the Iliad to Lonesome Dove’s Odyssey. The godforsaken Mexican border town of Ojinaga and the surrounding wilderness become the book’s center stage. The secondary characters start to drop out of sight. McMurtry begins sounding magic-realist (or Homeric) notes having to do with oracles and an animal that seems to possess supernatural powers. Word reaches Call that another supervillain is in the area, Mox Mox, whose pleasure in life is to burn people alive, especially children. All this darkens the tone of the book and relentlessly narrows the focus, until nothing matters except whether the aging Call will kill Joey and Mox Mox or not.
In the background McMurtry turns the social (or, more accurately, antisocial) tableau increasingly bleak: the West here is a hell in which murder after murder, rape after rape, mutilation after mutilation, leave one feeling spiritually emptied. There is a redemptive force, however, and it’s a powerful one: not the Quixotism about “freedom and opportunity” of McMurtry’s New Republic essay but the exhilarating possibility that bad killers will be done in by good killers. It’s impossible to read Streets of Laredo without beginning to wish very hard, almost obsessively, for Joey Garza and Mox Mox to die—without feeling, in fact, that if they die it will mean that westerning, despite all, amounted to something. The title McMurtry has chosen seems to underscore the point: “The Streets of Laredo,” probably the most famous of the old cowboy songs, is all about coffins, bullets, and shrouds, treating them not as occupational hazards but as the heart of the cowboy culture.
WITHOUT GIVING away the ending, it can be said that McMurtry makes clear that killing is the alpha and omega of the type of western life that is his subject here. Call’s role—warrior—is fundamentally incompatible with the world of women, agriculture, and families. A couple of times he has characters muse that they have left civilization behind, but in these pages that doesn’t carry a positive connotation, as it does in Rousseau or Thoreau; the state of nature is pure brutality, at least where men are concerned. (Only a couple of female characters manage to combine puissance with humanity in a transPecos setting, and it’s clear that if they want to keep the combination going, they’d better not remain in the area for very long.)
McMurtry’s “Quixotism” defense of the West made a perfect fit with Lonesome Dove, in which the grandeur of the characters’ dreams far outweighed the failure of those dreams to come true. Streets of Laredo in effect represents a defense of the West on completely different grounds: pure valor—some combination of skill, toughness, luck, courage, and singlemindedness— somehow rose out of the moral swamp there. It didn’t dominate, exactly, but it existed and it was admirable. As in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, however sincere the renunciations of West-glorification are at the outset of Streets of Laredo, finally the central characteristic of the grizzled hero is his performance in battle. At the very end McMurtry brings the owner of the railroad down from New York and puts him briefly onstage. He’s a Darwinian predator too, who spends his life vanquishing weaker creatures (it seems that such people will dominate in the American age that is dawning), but he lacks Call’s nobility, partly because he, unlike Call, is looking for a tangible payoff. It will be interesting to see whether McMurtry keeps up his custom of distilling the message of his fiction into essay form. Streets of Laredo gets down to a nub of the western experience so raw that it would be difficult to state it outright in the daylit prose of criticism. □