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Austin Chronicle One for the Road

Larry McMurtry's New Books Continue His Journey

By Mark Busby

AUGUST 7, 2000: 

Roads: Driving America's Great Highways by Larry McMurtry (Simon & Schuster), 208 pp., $25

Most of Larry McMurtry's novels are structured by journeys of some type, often leading nowhere in particular except to the act of traveling itself. Even his epic Lonesome Dove with its apparently purposeful goal of getting the cattle up the trail to Montana splinters into the varied reasons all the individual drovers are headed north. So it is not unusual to find that McMurtry's latest nonfiction effort, with the straightforward title Roads, takes the journey as its subject.

McMurtry tells us that he set out searching for something along those roads:

I wanted to drive the American roads at the century's end, to look at the country again, from border to border and beach to beach .... From earliest boyhood the American road has been part of my life -- central to it, I would even say. The ranch house in which I spent my first seven years sits only a mile from highway 281, the long road that traverses the central plains, all the way from Manitoba to the Mexican border at McAllen, Texas. In winter I could hear the trucks crawling up 281 as I went to sleep. In summer I would sit on the front porch with my parents and grandparents, watching the lights of cars as they traveled up and down that road. We were thoroughly landlocked. I had no river to float on, to wonder about. Highway 281 was my river, its hidden reaches a mystery and an enticement. I began my life beside it and I want to drift down the entire length of it before I end this book.

So McMurtry flies into an airport, rents a car, and heads out along the interstate. He rarely seems interested in a particular landmark, often notes that he has decided not to stop at something as he zooms by. He chooses to bypass the Meteor Crater in Arizona and is not "in a museum mood" as he drives by the Texas Ranger and the Dr Pepper museums in Waco. Occasionally he misses an exit and changes his route or decides to alter his plan because of construction. Reaching Albuquerque on "the 40," he tires, pulls into the airport, eats a cup of green chile soup at a kiosk, and flies home.

But as he drives along, the main impression he leaves is that he's not really interested in either the places that he passes or the roads on which he travels. Readers looking for the usual travel-book information about places will be disappointed unless they like to hear curmudgeonly complaining about too many trucks, too much urban sprawl, too much construction, too much lightning-speed change. The trips themselves are desultory, occasionally aborted, and usually unsatisfying. For example, he finds I-35, the "long stretch from Dallas to San Antonio -- an old, crumbling interstate that passes through endlessly repetitive stretches of ugly urban sprawl."

The places often zip by without arresting McMurtry's attention, except when a particular place is connected to one of book collector McMurtry's favorite writers: William Faulkner's Mississippi; James Agee's Knoxville; Teddy Blue's Montana; Ernest Hemingway's Michigan, Idaho, and Key West. After touring Hemingway's house in Key West, he concludes that the "furnishings in the Key West house, as it sits today, are more suggestive of Hemingway's worst prose."

It seems clear that this is not really a book about taking trips along specific roads but another Proustian journey along the trails in Texas' most famous novelist's varied past as he traces the places that have been central to his life and work: Washington, D.C., Hollywood, and Archer County, Texas, especially Archer County. In fact, in a book filled with information about trips buzzing along interstates at 80 miles any hour, the most affecting chapter is a short one late in the book called "Short Roads to a Deep Place" in which McMurtry recalls traveling slowly on the dirt roads of his home county with his grandfather and father. There he realizes that "as I age, I'm just beginning to understand how memory loops back on itself."

This book, therefore, should be read as a companion piece to McMurtry's last memoir, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. There McMurtry explained how after heart bypass surgery in 1991, he felt as though he had become someone separate from his previous life and has since been trying to find again the person he used to be. Driving along familiar roads, he says in this new book, is part of that process. Early on he writes, "Three passions have dominated my more than sixty years of mostly happy life: books, women, and the road." But the real passion here is the writer himself, not the journeys or the places that are the ostensible subject of the book. For those who have been reading his novels for almost 40 years, it's still an intriguing subject.

And now we learn that McMurtry indeed found something during these random drives: his desire to write fiction. Early last year, McMurtry announced that Duane's Depressed, the last novel of the Thalia trilogy, would be his last. Three nonfiction books (Walter Benjamin, Roads, and a biography of Crazy Horse) followed quickly. This fall, McMurtry will publish Boone's Lick, a novel set in the 19th century. It will be based, not surprisingly, on a series of journeys.

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