Texas book review: In a Narrow Grave, by Larry McMurtry

Having bogged down halfway (I hope) through “Indian Depredations in Texas” and slogged through Perry’s “The Story of Texas A&M,” I was in the mood for something light and quick. I figured a thin collection of essays from the eminently readable Larry McMurtry would do the trick.

But though I got what I was looking for — I finished it in just a few mornings of coffee-time reading — “In a Narrow Grave,” doesn’t hold true to McMurtry’s dominance as a novelist.

To begin and end the book, he pounds through one statement: The cowboy and the cowboy life is finished and he watched the last of them — old and failing — drive off into the west.

But there’s little magic to the first chapters about the filming of “Hud,” based on his novel “Horseman, Pass By” and, next, the state of the Western movie in general. (This book of essays was compiled in 1968, when Westerns were still vital, though very much changed from the beginning of that decade.)

The most useful chapter, “Southwestern Literature?”, along with the bibliography, intends to tear down the pedestals placed under Dobie, Webb and Bedichek, but at least offers a master’s take on recommended reading for neophyte Texas history students like myself. I added a dozen books to my reading list, and should I finish them, will likely raid this list for another dozen.

One recommended book, Dobie’s “The Ben Lilly Legend,” is my next read, and I’m already far enough along to be both suspicious and appreciative of how McMurtry borrowed this real-life man, fleshed out into legend by Dobie, and sprinkled him into the “Lonesome Dove” series of books.

McMurtry departs the theme for “Eros in Archer County” (useless filler), a chapter on driving around Texas (a string of cafes and reveries and one brief poignant moment with an old cowboy and old friend) and a hit job on the Astrodome (a fitting example of one of those LBJ-era pieces where Texas writers kick the shit out of their own state lest they be seen by their contemporaries as … what? Texan? I don’t know. It must’ve been hell to be a proud Texan back then, I guess.)

The other departure is “The Old Soldier’s Joy,” where he can barely stand to attend a fiddling contest in Athens long enough to mock it. Though a few moments shine through, particularly his description of a poverty-stricken boy longing for a vendor’s trinket, it is quickly tiresome.

This essay was included in another, much finer, collection called “Growing Old at Willie’s Picnic And Other Sketches of Life in the Southwest.”

That book, though I have not read it completely, is marvelous. I bought it just to read the magnificent title essay, though it is Larry L. King’s “The Old Man” that sticks with me. (I have long wanted to take a similar road trip with my father and son, though it now appears that I have wanted it too long and that window has closed.)

Read “Growing Old …” also for N. Scott Momaday’s otherworldly writing in “The Way to Rainy Mountain” and Leon Ralls vs. the bull in Al Reinert’s “The End of the Trail.”

McMurtry closes “In a Narrow Grave” with an extended remembrance of his family and the book comes alive with the closing tale of Uncle Johnny, a man who never forgot or really recovered from his youth as a cowboy on the range. A man whose seemingly supernatural talent for breaking bones was only matched by his stoic indifference.

We last see Uncle Johnny leaving a family reunion, folding his broken, elderly body into a Cadillac for a drive West. It’s a scene that will stick with you, no less than many of the fine ones in McMurtry’s novels.

Overall rating: 6 out of 10.

Author’s language skills: 7 out of 10 (in this book)

What I learned that will most likely stick with me: This book’s legacy will, I’m sure, be the other books that it has recommended to me.

Will it make the bookshelf? Yes.