Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Feeling Lonesome

Larry McMurtry and the death of storytelling.

By George Shadroui

FEBRUARY 21, 2000: 

Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections at Sixty and Beyond by Larry McMurtry (Simon & Schuster) 204 pages, $21

For a man of remarkable success -- best-selling books, blockbuster movies, a Pulitzer Prize -- Larry McMurtry assumes an unexpected melancholy tone in his recent collection of essays, "Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen."

The book is a sustained lament for things lost or fading away: places for quiet conversation, old-fashioned bookstores of the kind McMurtry loves, cowboys, family, and, perhaps most telling, McMurtry himself. McMurtry, author of such best-selling books as The Last Picture Show and Lonesome Dove, has turned 60 and in this collection is feeling very mortal indeed.

"I now think it's likely that a lot of my curiosity about the cowboy was an attempt to understand my father's essentially tragic take on his own -- and human -- experience." A few pages later: "I think two or three of my books are good, just as he thought two or three of the many horses he owned were good."

Trying to explain this very conscious backward glance at his life, McMurtry becomes almost mournful: "As we begin the long descent toward the country we won't come back from, our memory seeks to go back where it started."

He is not a happy camper. All the glamour and money and women (or so he implies), for reasons not explored, has not made him happy. Even as he celebrates the joys of book-hunting, for example, he is mainly grieving for the passing of the great bookstores of his youth. He spent much of life writing about cowboys and frontier people, but he candidly admits he didn't much like them. Books were his escape from the harsh, silent world of his youth in southwest Texas.

Undoubtedly, however, he touches on some powerful themes in a scattered way. He basically argues that Americans as a culture are losing touch with our core, the quiet places that once allowed us to talk, converse, share stories, and cultivate community.

But even this important issue is not coherently explored. What begins as a thesis on the lost art of storytelling quickly disintegrates into a rambling reflection of the long ago past, and the analysis of what has brought us to this state is never really offered. McMurtry argues, for example, that before the Dairy Queen arrived in the late 1960s, people of the small towns in southwest Texas had no place to gather and talk. In short, the old days were silent, uncommunicative, and isolating, as evidenced by his grandmother, who never said a word to him that he can recall. Yet, a couple of pages later, he says he was born into a world of rural storytellers. Very confusing. The storytellers of his youth are not discussed, only the silences that drove McMurtry to books and a life of breaking that silence through his own storytelling.

I don't mean to nitpick. His larger point is valid. Storytelling as part of our culture is disappearing, in more ways than one. We live in an age of instant marketing messages. The result is that many of us are impatient with the slow, unfolding drama of storytelling. Take all the words in most movies and write them down and you would not get a chapter of an old-fashioned novel. Imagery, pictures, special effects, and artfully crafted sentence fragments are the stuff of much of our storytelling and communicating.

Then, too, it is tougher, as our entire nation is homogenized into one large shopping village, to find the unique local spots where personality and storytelling are found. What does it say about us that a mass chain such as Dairy Queen is a spot where one of our most renowned storytellers retreats to find and study local culture? What ever happened to the front porch gatherings of the old South, the town meeting, the local diners where people met, talked, and shared histories? These "locales" are indeed vanishing and along with them the local culture that makes New England distinct from the South and the South distinct from Montana.

Still, pockets of local culture remain. Vermont, for example, is one of those places where just mentioning the state in an essay can get you in trouble. They don't want people to know that Vermont is charming, rural country where people generally work hard and know their neighbors. Just mentioning this could get me expelled as an honorary Vermonter (I have spent time there every summer of my life). Folks in Montana, I have been told, are also disenchanted with outsiders. And we can be thankful for it. These folks are trying to hold onto something valuable -- a sense of place, a unique understanding of their regional culture, the special places that make them who they are.

Wallace Stegner's book, Where the Bluebird Sings to the Lemonaide Springs, provides glimpses into what it means to be regionally inclined. Stegner's memoir of the West is more celebratory than McMurtry's -- he loves the flat, rustic landscape of that region. Green gives him the creeps. The West might not be my cup of tea -- personally I love rolling hills, mountains, and mountain streams and can feel the energy surge back into my body once I pass Nashville and head toward the Great Smoky Mountains. The point, however, is that each of us has these natural inclinations -- or did. But that is being lost, just as the regional and local spots are harder and harder to find.

That is why I buy books when I can at locally owned bookstores -- places rooted in history, in local life, not imported for mass consumption. Back in my D.C. days, I used to have breakfast routinely at a little soda fountain counter in a place called Falls Church. I don't know if the place is still there, but the counter area had photos of dozens (perhaps hundreds) of customers who dropped in for breakfast, chatted about life and politics, and even got a photo taken for posterity. They were neighbors and friends, even though you were as likely to bump into a former CIA agent there as you were a farmer. It didn't matter. It was a community and the people were real.

McMurtry is right, however, that we must find these places and grab them when we can, even when we have to compromise our sense of individuality and uniqueness by going to a Dairy Queen. I have over the years found Dunkin' Donuts a pretty good place to observe life and catch a few snatches of conversation about the world in which we live. One snowy day years ago in Arlington, Virginia, I overheard a homeless man describing his life -- how he went from being husband and father to forgotten soul. He had no excuses, offered no bitterness, but almost cried when he talked about trying to call his children.

The journey to the Dairy Queen is a metaphor perhaps about trying to maintain human connectedness in a modern, fast-paced, technological age. It is not a new issue (Pirsig, Toffler, and many others have offered their analyses of the matter), but it is one that needs constant revisiting in an age of niche marketing and electronically generated communities, else we risk losing touch with a valuable part of our history and culture.

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