Life in the Fast Lane
New York Times Sunday Book Review, July 16, 2000


Driving America's Great Highways.

By Larry McMurtry.
206 pp. New York:
Simon & Schuster. $25.

HIS WRITING CAN PUT an impressionable reader in mind of Art Buchwald, the Kingsley Amis of ''Lucky Jim,'' a meaner Sherwood Anderson and Wallace Stegner (with whom he studied at Stanford long ago). He has a reporter's eye, an affectionate ear for everyday speech and, yes, a Dickensian storyteller's facility when it comes to churning out words: to date nine million volumes in print, including 22 novels customarily stamped ''best seller'' and often enjoying an additional half-life on film.

Western writers are always blaming Eastern critics for being numb to Western fiction. It may be so. A celebrated New York writer and critic once remarked to me, ''I am only interested in people who are unhappy and live in cities.'' McMurtry is more than a Western writer, of course. He can make antic hay out of a Georgetown dinner party, and he has preserved an entire town in literary amber, exposing it in three successive stages of entropy. He regularly takes real and imaginary characters from the frontier past (Calamity Jane, for instance, or Billy the Kid, not to mention Woodrow F. Call and Augustus McCrae) and, after shriving them entirely of hype, makes them as real as the day before yesterday.

Though McMurtry's work hasn't stirred the serious critical attention it probably deserves, graduate students yet unborn will doubtless plunder his books for biographical clues and cultural cross-references. Meanwhile, from time to time, he has sparingly opened a door on his own life. Last year's result was a fine, brief collection of personal essays called ''Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen.'' Its brand-new, comparatively anemic and quirky adjunct is ''Roads: Driving America's Great Highways.''

Anyone with a weakness for reading or writing should get hold of ''Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen.'' Anyone who has done so already knows about McMurtry's beginnings as the son of a West Texas rancher, less scared of rattlesnakes than of his mom's poultry, a hapless incipient cowboy who tried for some years to help his father at work. Books were his undoing. No sooner did he discover them, at a fairly advanced age, than he was seized by the desire to read them, to pursue them, to possess them, to shelve them any way he felt like -- or, as he puts it, to round them up as cowboys used to round up cattle. ''I couldn't find the right cows,'' he writes, ''but I could find the right books.''

One sin led to another; McMurtry started writing. He finished two novels in his first year of graduate school and sold one -- twice. It had a bookish title, ''Horseman, Pass By,'' part of Yeats's epitaph; Hollywood truncated both book and title into a film called ''Hud.'' Year after year, he kept turning out novels and, with a passion that ''Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen'' makes infectious, he also found time to become a world-traveling book scout and insatiable collector who seems to have read and remembered every book he bought or sold.

For two decades, McMurtry was based in Washington as the owner of a renowned bookstore -- which explains why, in a novel called ''Cadillac Jack,'' he kidded the striped pants off Washington social life. Still writing away, he eventually went back to his tiny, once virtually bookless hometown (the Thalia of ''The Last Picture Show,'' ''Texasville'' and, more lately, ''Duane's Depressed''), turning it into a huge, million-volume bookstore. Is this revenge? Or a kind of cure? Hard to say. But since Proust is another of McMurtry's ruling passions, future graduate students may note that in ''Duane's Depressed'' he not only introduces a catfish living in a motel waterbed but, as a cure for Duane's nervous breakdown, has a lady psychiatrist remorselessly prescribe a cover-to-cover reading of ''Remembrance of Things Past.''

Remembrances differ, like the need for remembering. In ''Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen,'' McMurtry points out that the whole fate of the frontier West, from Lewis and Clark in 1805 to Wounded Knee in 1890, ''was settled in one long lifetime.'' The myth of the cowboy as brave and free, which Americans refuse to abandon, grew out of only 20 years of cattle drives, from 1870 to 1890, like the one he unsparingly recreated in the novel ''Lonesome Dove.''

No writer of fiction has shown better than McMurtry that the West -- his part of it, anyway -- involved conquest and devastation, that it has given fairly free rein to greed, aridity, desolation and tackiness. ''I tried to subvert the Western myth with irony and parody,'' he writes; but lies about the West proved more important than truths to American readers. Still, as distinct from revisionist historians and environmentalists hellbent on trampling any triumphalist frontier memory, McMurtry keeps a soft spot in his heart for the pain and courage of plain people who endured the killing work, the shattering loneliness, the persistent threat of Indian raids. They are his people, after all, and more specifically in Archer County, Tex., they were his own grandparents.

Just a few years ago, as McMurtry notes in ''Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen'' and ''Roads,'' heart surgery and a soul-deep depression deprived him not only of all zest for life but seemed to shear away many of the memories and qualities of being that he felt he had possessed before. For a while he was even unable to read. In the aftermath, McMurtry tried to reassemble, retrieve, reflect back upon his own life, times, tastes and distastes. ''Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen'' and ''Roads'' seem partly to be the result.

As a book scout, he used to drive all over the country. During the years in Washington, he made it back and forth to Texas some 60 times. Now in his mid-60's and preoccupied with his past, McMurtry apparently was seized with a yen to crisscross the country on the great highways again. Besides, he writes, ''being alone in a car is to be protected . . . in one's own time machine, in which the mind can rove ahead to the future or scan the past. When I'm about to start a novel I've always found that driving across the country for a few hundred miles is a good way to get ready.''

Despite the inclusion of chapter headings listing the highway networks over which McMurtry chose to drive before writing ''Roads,'' the book is not an aid to travel but an occasion for fleeting, from-the-hip commentary on anything along the way that comes to his eye or mind. The first drive begins in Duluth, Minn., in the dead of winter, after McMurtry flies there (standard procedure) and rents a serious car for a trip south to Oklahoma. Later he hits the road home from Washington, confiding that he always feels a lift of the heart on reaching Arkansas, not because he likes the state but because it's there that he gets his first glimpse of a really big sky.

McMurtry thinks of 1,100 miles as ''perfect for a quick little run.'' A typical sentence reads: ''I spent the day in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri'' deciding where ''the Midwest begins.'' (Columbus, he figures, since west of it the land is flat.) One chapter heading is ''Seattle to Omaha via the 90, the 15, U.S. 87, U.S. 2, U.S. 3, U.S. 281, U.S. 50 and I-29.'' Because McMurtry doesn't want to ''take the national pulse'' or fall prey to what he calls ''travel chat,'' the book mainly provides lean pickings at high speed.

Because everything occurs geographically rather than according to subject, it takes a while for various minicategories to accumulate. One of them is odd facts. Route 40 was the first federally financed highway; Kit Carson was only an inch taller than McMurtry's ''very short agent,'' Swifty Lazar. There are a lot of things and places McMurtry is testy about: Route 40 (not federal funding but too many trucks); the state of Missouri (''a place to get through as rapidly as possible''); Key West (Disney should buy it; it's already a theme park, and ''Disney would at least know how to manage the parking'').

McMurtry extravagantly admires the Gateway Arch in St. Louis (though it is sited improperly) and Lafayette, La. (for its crawfish étouffée). He is drawn to the ''lonely, lovely and spooky'' Oklahoma panhandle and the whole beautiful state of Montana, except for the University of Montana in Missoula, ''where there's usually a wild tangle of writers . . . a kind of literary ghetto,'' by which this reviewer reckons he has in mind several Western writers who complain about Eastern critics. Stirred by passing geographical connections (in Knoxville, it's James Agee), he predictably tips his hat to hundreds of literary and historical figures -- Aristotle and Chief Joseph, Geronimo, the Bent Brothers, Susan Sontag and Eudora Welty and Thomas Wolfe (whose characters, McMurtry says, ''tend to lose their edges, like jellyfish, in the sea of his words''). In short, ''Roads'' is mostly a jumble of enigmatic glimpses at the Western past, present cultural gossip and now and then a literary perception, offered at flash-card speed by an omnivorous reader. Loyally, he includes writers not much read anymore and some not read at all: George R. Stewart (''Storm''), Clancy Sigal (''Going Away'') and Teddy Blue Abbott (''We Pointed Them North,'' ''the single best memoir of the cowboy era'').

Having bought up many libraries of the rich and famous, and being inclined to take reading very seriously, McMurtry is fascinated by the reading habits of writers and tends to judge them a bit by the quality of the literary company they keep. In Key West, for example, he is ''disquieted'' by the books and even the furnishings in Hemingway's house. Puzzling over it, he finally decides the real books may have been replaced by one of Hemingway's wives.

If this writing is some kind of therapy, McMurtry's penultimate chapter seems to work best, because here he suddenly loses his taste for speed. In his mind, he goes home, turning back to memories of neighbors and friends and a familiar stretch of West Texas dirt known as Sam Cowan Road, which year after year he rode with his father in a battered pickup. ''What Proust is to me,'' he writes, ''the grasslands were to my father, a great subtle text which would repay endless study. He was a countryman, lifelong, and had a countryman's eye for the small variables of landscape. . . . I have looked at many places quickly -- my father looked at one place deeply.'' Sixty years on, traveling among ghosts, McMurtry finds how much it matters to move slowly. ''Every year the short drive to the ranch house on that dirt road becomes less of a simple thing.''