He may not look or walk or talk like a typical Texan, but Larry McMurtry is as big a Texas brand name as Lone Star Beer or the Dallas Cowboys. Now in his late 50s, McMurtry has returned to the town of his childhood and his early novels — Archer City, a dusty, flyblown piece of hardscrabble real estate in the bleak country northwest of Fort Worth. And he’s back with another big novel — The Streets of Laredo, a sequel of sorts to everyone’s favorite Western, the trail-driving blockbuster Lonesome Dove (1985). Nearly everybody left above ground in Dove reappears in Streets.
The West begins and ends, it seems, in McMurtry’s long-standing love-hate relationship with his native soil. In Archer City, which he once lampooned, he has become a celebrity. Where he once wore a T-shirt that read ”Minor Regional Novelist,” now Cybill Shepherd is proud to be a friend of Larry’s, and famous intellectuals like Susan Sontag weekend at his estate.
McMurtry has come a long way from his early regional fiction, which sold few copies and attracted a mostly Texan audience. His first books — Horseman, Pass By (1961), Leaving Cheyenne (1963), and The Last Picture Show (1966) were ironic, often incisive portraits of ranching and small-town traditions in the provincial backwaters of the 1950s Southwest. But then, in a thoughtful collection of essays, In a Narrow Grave (1968), McMurtry bid goodbye to Old Texas. He embraced New(rotic) Texas in three Houston-based novels: Moving On (1970), an interminable and strangely addictive book about graduate-student life; All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers (1972); and Terms of Endearment (1975).
And then — having written himself out of Texas topics — McMurtry moved on in his fiction as he had in his life. From Washington, D.C., where he relocated in 1970, he wrote three non-Texas novels, the best of which was probably Cadillac Jack (1982). But the trail he followed led him straight back home, to the legendary days of the Texas Rangers and cattle drives, caught in all their dusty glory in Lonesome Dove, which brought him honors, riches, and a national audience. Not that he hadn’t been doing okay in the money department from film rights alone. Try naming another American author whose work has inspired such a string of commercially successful, critically acclaimed movies (Hud, The Last Picture Show, Terms of Endearment).
In the beginning McMurtry was careful not to repeat himself; there were no Hud Goes to Hawaiis. But after Lonesome Dove he began to recycle his early fiction like an aging television producer trying to recapture the magic of the hit series of his youth. First came Texasville (1987), an anarchic sequel to The Last Picture Show; then Some Can Whistle (1989), which resurrected Danny Deck of All My Friends in a strange, static, and death-filled novel in which McMurtry kills off any character one might start to like; last year brought us The Evening Star, a tepid update of Terms of Endearment.
In other post-Dove efforts he has reridden the lonely reaches of the Old West, searching for more lost mines, more mother lodes of ore and whores. Anything for Billy (1988) offered a mordant outline of the Billy the Kid legend, and Buffalo Gals (1990) added Calamity Jane to McMurtry’s galaxy of Western mythic figures viewed through very dark sunglasses indeed. With Streets of Laredo McMurtry revisits the frontier era of the late-19th century, rewriting his own fictional version of the Western past — resulting in a sort of Lonesome Dove without cattle. Those readers who loved that blockbuster may think he has run out of Gus in this one, but those who like a little mayhem with their baby-back ribs will be mighty pleased to run down Laredo’s mean streets.