The Ghost Writer At Home On The Range

THE WIND HAD BECOME EVEN MORE SEVERE, AND HE HAD THE SICKENING SENSE THAT HE, NOT HIS HAT, WAS ABOUT TO BLOW AWAY. THERE WASN'T A TREE IN SIGHT THAT HE COULD SEE: JUST ENDLESS PLAIN. UNLESS HE COULD ROLL UP AGAINST A WAGON WHEEL, AS HIS HAT HAD, THERE WOULD BE NOTHING TO STOP HIM FOR DAYS, IF HE BLEW AWAY. HE KNEW IT WAS AN ABSURD FEELING: GROWN MEN, ESPECIALLY HEAVY MEN SUCH AS HIMSELF, DIDN'T JUST BLOW AWAY. YET THE FEELING PERSISTED, AND EVERY TIME HE HAPPENED TO GLANCE ACROSS THE STREET AND SEE NOTHING--NOTHING AT ALL EXCEPT GRASS AND SKY--THE FEELING GOT WORSE.

FROM "STREETS OF LAREDO"

Until he underwent quadruple bypass surgery, Larry McMurtry had no plans to write a sequel to "Lonesome Dove." When the producers of the hugely successful 1989 mini-series based on his novel decided to go ahead with a sequel of their own, McMurtry agreed only to serve as a paid consultant, but he had nothing to do with writing the script. But then, a year and a half ago, everything changed. Even as "Return to Lonesome Dove" was set to go into production, McMurtry's life took not one but two extraordinary turns.

First, he found himself combating a fierce case of the postoperative anemic known to hit heart-bypass patients. "I went about the physical recovery very quickly," McMurtry, 57, told NEWSWEEK, "and went about my life doing the things I had done running bookshops, writing screenplays, writing fiction, traveling, lecturing, etc. And it just sort of gradually emptied out of content, until it was like a ghost doing these things, not me at all, until there was nothing but an outline."

Stranger still, in the midst of his struggle, a "Lonesome Dove" sequel, bearing no relation to the TV version, "sort of burst out." McMurtry has no idea where his inspiration came from. The actual writing, he says, was a little like taking dictation. "It was coming to me from afar, sort of, from a writing persona that was mine, or that had been mine, and was still coming across the wire somehow, but without my having much control over it. I really feel like this novel was faxed to me by my former self."

However strange its origins, Streets of Laredo (589 pages. Simon & Schuster. $25) is a splendid addition to the literary portrait of his native Texas and the West that McMurtry's been creating for three decades. It's also one of his most affectingly melancholy books. Its heroes are frail, and their ideals are often compromised. Capt. Woodrow Call is pushing 70 and still chasing bandits-only now he works not as a Texas Ranger but as a hired gun for the railroad. Set some 15 years after its boisterous and high-spirited predecessor, "Streets of Laredo" recounts Call's bleak quest across Texas and Mexico for a murderous young train robber. As before, there is plenty of bloody action, but this time there is precious little humor. And while the characters are as finely etched as any McMurtry has ever minted, it is the villains who are the most memorable--particularly the bandit Joey Garza, who murders his stepfather by chopping off his hands and feet, and the runt called Mox Mox, who burns people for sport.

This is a story about divided loyalties, and about the trouble visited upon those with one foot planted in civilization and the other in the wilderness. Almost nothing works out the way people expect in "Streets of Laredo." And as Call discovers most painfully, nothing more tragic can befall a man than to outlive his time.

One need not have read the earlier novel to appreciate "Streets of Laredo," since it is a sequel in the loosest sense of the word. Beyond a handful of characters, the two books have little in common, and each stands alone quite well. "Larry doesn't so much write sequels as he extends stories out beyond where they were," says Michael Korda, McMurtry's editor at Simon & Schuster since 1970. "You don't need to know anything about 'Terms of Endearment' to read 'The Evening Star'."

Sequels that aren't really sequels, Westerns that pay no heed to the conventions of the genre, a novelist equally comfortable writing about Calamity Jane and Houston astronauts, a man who writes as well about women as any American male ever has McMurtry has so consistently confounded his readers' expectations that maybe it's no wonder he never reached a broad audience before "Lonesome Dove" appeared. Over the course of his career, in a plain style that's ice-water clear but on a scale that rivals Faulkner's, he has spun Old West legends, contemporary domestic dramas, tragedy, comedy and satire. The results range from the acerbic ("The Last Picture Show") to the bittersweet ("Terms of Endearment") to the epic ("Lonesome Dove"). And if readers were slow to appreciate McMurtry, writers were not. "I can't read McMurtry," Norman Mailer once said. "He's too good. If I start reading him, I start writing like him."

McMurtry is every bit as hard to characterize in his personal life as he is in his fiction. Intensely private, he has for years dodged the limelight. But then, in 1989, be willingly served a highly visible term as president of the American chapter of PEN, the international writers' organization. He is also a respected rare-book dealer, having owned bookstores in Washington, D.C., Dallas, Houston and his hometown, Archer City, Texas, where he lives a part of each month in an old mansion that was once the country club. Until he had health problems, he was an inveterate rover, driving coast to coast every month, with stops in Washington, Texas and Hollywood, where he has written some 30 screenplays.

Until "Lonesome Dove" appeared in 1985, McMurtry's books sold respectably and got good reviews and that was that. For years, he went around in a sweat shirt that said MINOR REGIONAL NOVELIST on the front. "Lonesome Dove" changed his status for good. In publishing-industry lingo, it was McMurtry's "breakout book," selling nearly 300,000 copies in hardcover and 1.2 million paperbacks. ("Streets of Laredo" has a first printing of more than 400,000.) It also garnered the sort of foursquare critical praise that paved the way to a Pulitzer Prize in 1986. "Everything about 'Lonesome Dove' feels true," wrote Nicholas Lemann in The New York Times Book Review. "These are real people and they are still larger than life."

Riding the success of the book and the mini-series, McMurtry went from Minor Regional Novelist to Famous American Author in one shot. He was deluged with fan mail, and curiosity seekers made it impossible for him to visit his own bookstores. "I got feedback that exceeds anything I've ever had," he says, "including five impostors scattered around the country who are pretending to be me, somewhat successfully in one or two cases. Mostly they try to seduce women. In one case there's a fair amount of financial chicanery of a fairly low grade."

The irony of the situation is not lost on McMurtry: "They all pretend that they're me in my most anonymous mode seeking to avoid the public." They also remind him of his own sense of being counterfeit. "It's interesting that I developed all these impostors and then shortly after came to feel that I myself was an impostor impersonating the self that I had been."

McMurtry discusses his predicament the way he might describe a case of the flu. If anything, he seems more puzzled than depressed, rather as if he were indeed talking about someone else. When asked if fife has turned out the way he'd hoped, he replies slowly. "I don't think I had very particular expectations. I wanted to get to read a lot. And I have." He pauses for a moment. "It's turned out interesting. I don't feel disappointed." Then, suddenly, his voice quickens with enthusiasm. "Certainly, I've had a splendid life."

And the MINOR REGIONAL NOVELIST sweat shirt? "Oh, that was left in the laundry in Leesburg, Va., somewhere around 1970. A long time ago."

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