“Shooting fish in a barrel.” “Loaded for bear.” “Bring in the big guns.” Many West Texas sayings involve firearms. Or cows. “All hat and no cattle” describes a man who struts around wearing a symbol of power on his head but who holds no actual value. The opposite of a mensch. A big gun (a man connected to power) who loads for bear (using all the power at his disposal) in order to shoot fish in a barrel is one way for a writer to be all hat and no cattle. Using fancy words to describe those people, in withering terms sufficient to elevate a discriminating reader, is one way to make a writerly living. J.D. Vance, writer of Hillbilly Elegy, has made a mint. Larry McMurtry did the opposite. McMurtry died in March, having spent much of his 84 years arranging words to help readers sympathetically hear life in West Texas.
He’s best known for Lonesome Dove, due to the abiding allure of the very myth of the West that McMurtry wrote at a slant. Dwight Garner notes in his New York Times obituary that McMurtry offered “unromantic depictions of a long mythologized region.” “Now a Triumphant CBS-TV Event” my copy of Lonesome Dove announces. I’m not hating. But I love McMurtry for his smaller, sparer stories. “Prose,” he wrote, “must accord with the land.” “A viny, tangled prose would never do for a place so open; a place, to use Ross Calvin’s phrase, where the sky determines so much.” McMurtry used his genuine, literary power to describe life alongside people smaller than the sky, who neither wield nor hire big guns.
The quote above comes from McMurtry’s 1968 collection In A Narrow Grave, specifically “Here’s Hud in Your Eye,” about his visit to the set of the 1963 movie “Hud” based on his first novel Horseman, Pass By (1961). The producers needed a sexier name for the movie; a man on a horse just passing by being insufficient. They considered “Wild Desire.” McMurtry proposes paring it down to “Coitus on Horseback.” McMurtry fashions humor from the mix of meaning, myth, and manhood going on as Hollywood makes “Texas.” He recommends Pauline Kael’s review of “Hud,” and Kael brings in London and New York, noting that critics watching “Hud” from above mistakenly discovered significance, unable to process that McMurtry’s American West, a “lonesome country,” is not a serviceable morality tale.
I’m currently writing a book on muscular Christianity and know the publishing pressure to shoot fish in a barrel. “Send us a manuscript with guns on the cover.” That’s almost a direct quote from an acquisitions editor. Nothing has perked up ears more than my research on “Cowboy Church.” Put the Marlboro Man on a Bible, and you can sell both the Bible and a book deliciously skewering the tacky people who buy it. A marketing strategist for white evangelical publishing calls this “Reaching Men by Tribes,” using psychographics to create a market, divide by market, and control Christianity. (Another “tribe” is “Fight Club Church.”) Most offensive to me, a girl born 40 miles south of McMurtry’s Archer City, is the inanity of “Cowboy” and “Church” in the materials for this scheme. Amazon recommends The Great Cow-mission. Reading McMurtry has helped me stay sane.
McMurtry had a keen eye for absurdity posing as purpose. A key scene in the filming of “Hud” requires buzzards, the intended symbolism redolent as they “soared into the blue Panhandle sky.” But the local buzzards are uncooperative. The filmmakers import live buzzards by jet 1,000 miles from Laredo to Amarillo and wire them for electronic release on cue. “As soon as they were wired to the tree they all began to try and fly away. The wires prevented that, of course, but did not prevent them from falling off the limbs, where they dangled upside down, wings flapping, nether parts exposed . . .” This was “unaesthetic,” and unlikely “to beguile a movie-going audience.”
Finally [the buzzards] abandoned their efforts to fly away and resigned themselves to life on their tree . . . Their resignation was so complete that when the scene was readied and the time came for them to fly, they refused. They had had enough of ignominy; better to remain on the limb indefinitely. Buzzards are not without patience. Profanity, fire-crackers, and even a shotgun full of rock salt failed to move them. I’m told that, in desperation, a bird man was flown in from L.A. to teach the sulky bastards how to fly.
Describing one un-felled swoop, McMurtry has made mythologizing silly, the filmmakers merely human, and bestowed practical wisdom on the buzzards.
Already, on page 3, Sonny tells you:
“He didn’t like to be reminded that Sam the Lion was not as young or as healthy as he once had been. Sam the Lion was the man who took care of things, particularly of boys, and Sonny did not like to think that he might die.”
Sam dies almost formally unremarked in the novel, as Sonny leaves for the high-school senior trip. What’s lost is already gone on the first page: the picture show version of Texas. McMurtry has the boys casually go to the last showing in the theater “an Audie Murphy movie called The Kid from Texas.” “It would have taken Winchester ’73 or Red River” to “have crowded out the memories the boys kept having.” The two best friends are ostensibly fighting over a girl, Jacy Farrow, but they’re also staring into their future in a town where “there aren’t many jobs open at any hour.”
An original movie poster of “Hud” is all Paul Newman, hip-cocked, with the words: “The Man With the Barbed Wire Soul.” The original movie poster for “Last Picture Show” (1971) is blank expanse above a spare drawing of the Royal movie house. What McMurtry most impressed on a teenage me was that an adult understood some coaches are sadists, being young is as befuddling as growing old, and that the most vocally righteous Christians are likely covering something up. The closest thing to church in the book is when Lois Farrow (Jacy’s mother and the most obviously powerful woman in Thalia) walks out of Preacher Blanton’s revival and goes to play checkers with Joe Bob in jail. “A lot of tongues clicked—most people thought Lois needed saving worse than anyone in town.”
The aristocrats who bought the West and paid men to lay down barbed wire are not in these books. The stories go on as men and women are cruel, indifferent, and sometimes tender with one another underneath that larger cruelty. Diana Ossana, McMurtry’s long writing partner, insisted he read Annie Proulx’s “Brokeback Mountain” after it first appeared in The New Yorker in 1997. Together they brought the story to the big screen, vivifying Proulx’s wind-scoured, skeletal prose with details like a J.C. Penney’s wedding dress and a Mr. Coffee machine.
In an early scene, the screenplay reads “WE SEE: ENNIS, horseback, being an exemplary sheepman, a sickly lamb across his saddle, trailed by the blue heelers.” The West is still a place where tending, hunting, and slaughtering animals is basic. That part of the myth abides, and, while not pretty, is a kind of code of right masculinity. The note draws on a shorthand “WE SEE” regarding how Ennis is “exemplary.” You, we, can judge a man by how he treats “his animals” and, in this case, the animals he’s paid to keep alive. Ennis’s father had forced Ennis at age 9 to look at the body of a man dismembered alive, and he made sure Ennis knew why. Ennis and Jack each marry women not only out of economic survival, but out of mere survival, and their fathers, each one, raised their boy by a code that included being respectful of animals and that, on threat of brutal torture and death, precluded homosexuality.
Proulx’s story ends with a reality that McMurtry and Ossana thread through the screenplay: “There was some open space between what he knew and what he tried to believe, but nothing could be done about it, and if you can’t fix it you’ve got to stand it.” Jack tries, finally, to live both tending cattle and loving a man, and, off screen, his wife’s father makes sure he dies alone, disfigured, drowning in his own blood.
When Jack and Ennis leave their summer jobs after falling profoundly in love, Ennis can’t walk “half a block.” Both Proulx’s story and McMurtry’s screenplay read “he feels like someone’s pulling his guts out, hand over hand, a yard at a time.” The notes for this scene in the film read simply:
A COWBOY passes the alley. Pauses, looks at ENNIS.
ENNIS glares at him.
What the fuck you lookin’ at?
The COWBOY moves on.
McMurtry typed these words about the story:
“I was the more stunned when I read ‘Brokeback Mountain’ because I realized that it was a story that had been sitting there all my life, fifty-five years of which have been lived in the American West. There the story was, all those years, waiting in patient distance for someone to write it.”
There are, of course, other reasons to refuse a resurrection of “The COWBOY” as myth and to resist a franchised chain of churches around it. The myth is historically inaccurate, racist, and often juvenile, ill-equipped to take care of things, particularly boys. The aristocrats calling the shots and hiring the big guns would love to use the myth to sell my still-Texas nephews more cigarettes, guns, bad faith, and stupid movies. But this one particular reason is also enough to think critically about “Cowboy Church.” Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist are reason enough. Thank you, Larry McMurtry, for not moving on.