Some Texans write about Texas in a way that makes me wish I’d been born there. Larry McMurtry is a prime generator of this Texas-envy of mine. At 74 he’s one of the American writers I most admire; it’s his combination of steady productivity, versatility, and the ability to create a masterpiece every 10 years or so.
McMurtry has published 24 novels, written 20 screenplays that have been produced and many more that never quite came together in movie form, at least a half-dozen memoirs, and assorted other works of nonfiction. Among his works that have imprinted on my psyche are the movie Hud (from his first novel in 1960); the film The Last Picture Show (1966) from another of his novels; his 1985 novel Lonesome Dove, about cattle drives in the open-range West, which won the Pulitzer and was turned into perhaps the greatest made-for-TV movie of all time; the Oscar-winning screenplay for Brokeback Mountain (2005); and in 1999 a wonderful collection of essays, mostly about life in small-town Texas, with the evocative title Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections at Sixty and Beyond.
So it came as a surprise to me in reading his latest memoir, Hollywood, that McMurtry these days is writing in a new way. Henry James was famous for his “late style.” As the critic Mira Sethi aptly describes it:
In his so-called late style, James’s writing became increasingly impressionistic, shedding such traditional storytelling tools as plot and conventional character development in favor of investigating the possibilities of language and new forms of narration. In novels such as “The Ambassadors” (1903) and “The Golden Bowl” (1904), the reader encounters long, complex sentences that mimic the slowly emerging realizations of consciousness in his characters, as well as their distracted and often beautiful musings, thoughts that bear no immediate relationship to the plot.
McMurtry’s late style is the mirror image of Henry James’s. It’s quick, offhand, and super-casual – as if he’s painting watercolors with as few details as possible and no layers whatsoever.
To cite one example, here’s McMurtry remembering a stay in Rome while his friend the director Peter Bogdanovich was shooting a movie and McMurtry was working on his screenplay for Terms of Endearment. This is one sequence in its entirety:
In Rome we had dined once , ceremonially, more or less, with Bernardo Bertolucci, at a chilly, snooty, high-end restaurant called El Toula. Nothing was said by either young director – at least nothing I could understand.
Later that evening, though, I did glimpse Andy Warhol, wandering through the Piazza Navona. He wandered through the crowd like a frail ghost, licking his gelato.
Now McMurtry hasn’t always written so sparely. Read any scene from Lonesome Dove and you’ll see it fully developed with all the details that one would be expected from a first-rate novelist. At first when I read about Warhol and his gelato, I was disappointed. What’s the point? I wondered. Is this just name-dropping or what? If you’re going to bring up Bertolucci and Warhol back to back, at least give me anecdote.
The more I read the Hollywood memoir, however, the more I came to understand McMurtry’s methods. Writing instructors teach us to zero in on the telling detail, the little thing that reveals character. In Hollywood McMurtry encounters many famous people, and he’s focusing on the details that portray a culture.
Warhol is so well known that the memoirist does not need to waste words describing him. Think about it. We all know what Andy Warhol looked like. We all have some sense of his ditsy-vacant, perhaps-faux-naif persona. No need to describe Warhol to me. Just mention his name and I can see him – and McMurtry’s brief snapshot of the artist licking his gelato and passing ghostlike through the crowds captures the platonic essence of Warhol for me.
Other characters who are less famous than Warhol draw far more attention from McMurtry. He’s fascinated by his longtime agent Irving “Swifty” Lazar, a very short, Brooklyn-born yet Middle European fellow who re-created himself as an English gentleman. We learn lots of nuggets about Lazar, a man for whom McMurtry has much affection and who is also a Hollywood archetype, the grand hustler who believes in his own hustle. Lazar, McMurtry says, loved fine narrow English shoes, which, in combination with bad circulation in his legs, lead to gangrene in his feet during his last years. It was the ultimate humiliation for Lazar to meet a friend at a hot Hollywood eating spot wearing tennis shoes.
The book is filled with these offhand, quick-brush insights that add up in the end to an impressionist portrait of Hollywood culture. Here’s a fine insight into the actor’s mentality as McMurtry remembers a young actor who was found dead in his car on a New York street:
I didn’t know him well, but I did see in him a kind of self-disappointment - perfect for that role but not so perfect for life. It was a look compounded of fear and emptiness – many actors have it when they are not playing a part
And who else but McMurtry would give us this picture of what it’s like sitting in the audience waiting to see if you’ll win an Oscar?
The audience was restive; what many elders such as myself had on their minds was bladder control. Four and a half hours inched by, producing no big thrills for anyone, except perhaps for the producers of Crash.
I was interested in the seat fillers, the adroit kids who slipped instantly into the seat left by those who had dared to dart to the bathroom. And then popped out again, to hover mysteriously till they were needed again. Their job was to make sure the cameras showed a full house.