On the Death of Larry McMurtry
“By God, Woodrow, it’s been quite a party, ain’t it?”
Augustus “Gus” McCrea, “Lonesome Dove”
My introduction to Texas novelist Larry McMurtry came in the fall of 1989, with the CBS miniseries production of his novel Lonesome Dove. I was a newlywed that fall, married just a little over two years. Christy and I spend four evenings with my grandparents to watch what was to become (perhaps) the greatest western put on film. As I got to know the characters, Woodrow Call, Augustus “Gus” McCrea, Josh Deets, Pea Eye Parker, Newt Dobbs, and others who made up the Hat Creek outfit, it dawned on me that my grandfather was much like Gus, the roguish Texas Ranger with a boyish charm, a swashbuckling flare, and a devil-may-care attitude. Both men loved the company of women and loved to prank. But neither man meant anything by it and could take as well as they gave. Every time Gus talked about a “poke,” his euphemism for intercourse, my grandfather chuckled, his nostrils wiggling up and down as he laughed. He’d turn to Christy and me and ask if we’d had a poke before coming over. Christy would blush. I would smile. Sometimes I’d say, “No, but we’re going to have one when we get home tonight.” And he’d laugh even harder.
Larry didn’t know it, but he helped deepen an already close relationship between a grandson and his grandparents—and endeared his wife to two people who because so very dear to her.
Many years later, after my grandparents died and I was no longer a newlywed, I meet Larry at his bookstore, Booked Up, in Archer City, Texas. I brought my mother, two sisters, and a niece there; they were overwhelmed by the number of volumes the store contained. Larry was sitting in the lobby of the store at a table reading a book; I Go Pogo by Mort Walker, I believe it was. My little sister asked if she could have his autography. She told me later, she was going to get it for me since I wouldn’t ask. No, he said. He had a policy not to autograph anything other than his books. And since we didn’t have a book with us we didn’t get the autograph—and I couldn’t afford to buy the already autographed copies in his store. He did agree to a picture, however, which my sister took of me kneeling beside Larry in his chair. I asked him if he was working on anything. “No novels. Screenplays. That’s where the money is.” I thanked him for writing Lonesome Dove and told him how the film version brought me closer to my grandparents, who loved the dialogue. He was gracious, but I could tell he didn’t want to be pawed over and wanted to get back to his book, so I shook his hand and left him alone to read in peace.
After my second son finished reading Lonesome Dove he texted me one evening and said Gus reminded me of him. I couldn’t have asked for a great compliment.1
I’ve read most of Larry’s major novels and all of his bound essays, as well as his three volume “autobiography,” if you could call it that: Books, Literary Life, and Hollywood. Many, if not most, critics and fans say Lonesome Dove wasn’t his finest work, even though he won the Pulitzer for it. That distinction often goes to Duane’s Depression. I recalling reading someplace Larry thought so too. But not for me.
Larry Jeff McMurtry died on March 25, 2021. He was eight-four years old. He was a novelist, essayist, and screenwriter. He was a literary legend. He was a cowboy. He was a Texan. He was a man who helped a grandson see Gus in his grandfather and a son see Gus in his father. He was a man who deepen the relationship between a grandson and his grandparents. And he will be missed.
And whenever I grow a mustache, my wife calls it my “Gustache.”