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Meander: Larry McMurtry at the Driskill Hotel

"What is the more difficult work…roping or writing? "

Published onJun 23, 2024
Meander: Larry McMurtry at the Driskill Hotel

Photo by Jordann Player:

The boys from North Dakota
They drink whiskey for their fun
And the cowboys down in Texas
They polish up their guns

-North Dakota, Lyle Lovett

 This short meander is long on time.

            It is about serendipity, or parallel thinking, or the patterns we will ourselves into by simply living with our individual predilections that often appear to be simultaneous elsewhere. These are the random coincidences that tend to stun us when they occur, because they are an architecture without an architect. These are the keys to our separate personalities that seem to collate in unexpected groups, people we have never met.

This is not another eulogy for Larry McMurtry.

            Stewart Boot Company is housed in a sun beaten, unkempt building on West 28th Street just south of the Barrio Santa Cruz, Tucson. Victor Bora has been the proprietor, president, and master boot maker there since 1970 when the Stewart of Stewart’s bailed out of his enterprise in an IRS foreclosure. Victor is well into his eighties now but still takes custom orders, and carries a piece in a holster on his hip. The lasts for his repeat customers are lined up like a dusty and dimly lit mausoleum of artificial feet, ready at hand if a request comes by phone. He has lost over one hundred years of experience in craft employees to COVID and the wear and tear of a hard life in the desert. That saddens him. This craftsmanship is proved evanescent.

            Many years ago I asked my wife for a pair of custom made boots from Stewart Boots. She had been into her cowboy boot phase, to be followed by a coat/jacket phase, and finally, recently, a hat phase. One of anything will not do, multiples are the answer. But a pair in her closet was not a new purchase, but one she had picked up in an upscale department store in Denver when Stewart’s was pushing ready-mades. The boots were patinaed, scuffed, black elk leather with no stitched-embellishments. Utilitarian not Saturday night, yet elegant. I had seen her wearing them often and had a hankering, so one day looked inside and saw the yellow label, Stewart, Fine Handmade Boots, Tucson, Arizona. I asked her if she might find the maker and request a duplicate pair, in my size.

            Why? I thought they were smart design, perhaps utilitarian, or so I told myself. Perhaps I was longing for the myth of the west, yes that one we were all drawn to growing up in the nineteen-fifties, now that we see it only as a revenant, a young boys dream.

            Stewart’s had no real Internet presence at that time. They were doing it the old way by word of mouth, and the mouths were speaking. She did find a reference to the company and called, eventually speaking to Victor who must have been in his late sixties then. He could do it, send him outlines on paper of both my feet and he would then send a pair of “tester” boots off the shelf, but as close as he could get, and walk me over the phone what they were doing on my feet.

            He called and asked questions, and built a pair for me from the outlines and the data he collected by voice. I imagined an image from his voice, and when I finally met him last year, on a taco and tres leches run to Tucson for my birthday, I met someone I had not expected. Three months later the soft, black, unadorned, perfect, boots arrived and I was someone different, if not a bit taller. Round two took place several years later when she had Victor build me a pair of chocolate brown, suede, boots, same style, heel, and toe as the blacks, no stitching, except for blue piping down the side seam, to coordinate, so said Denise, with my jeans. Now I had to buy boot jeans.

            I came to Larry McMurtry through one of his very early books, Leaving Cheyenne, most likely when I was just out of college and open to suggestion, then later, Cadillac Jack, a character I took a hefty liking to. McMurtry was a keen storyteller with a sound streak of black wit, and an underlying intellectualism that was sleek and true. He passed away in 2021, and the outpouring of testimonies and recollections was a high plains thunderstorm of words.

            In the interim my youngest son had moved to Austin, the first Warzel to venture Texas. When I drove to visit with him four months into his new life I picked up The Last Kind Words Saloon at BookPeople in Austin, feeling when in Texas read McMurtry. I took Ben to the Alamo in San Antonio for a day trip, so he could learn the Texas creation myth first hand since he was now one of them. He was amused, but not so much when I began to sing the Ballad of Davey Crockett while standing in front of the massive cenotaph in Georgia marble and pink Texas granite. There were the heroes, the Texas saints in relief, and even he thought my singing was blasphemy.  I read the McMurtry that evening and chuckled aloud at his deft evisceration of the myth of the west. I think my singing would not have bothered him one bit.

            Several weeks ago Ben sent me a photo of his current reading – The Sot Weed Factor, and Lonesome Dove. Eclectic. It was interesting to me that he had gravitated to the McMurtry epic, perhaps baptizing himself in the Brazos River now that he was Texan. (It was also curious that he had chosen a John Barth novel, one writer I have had tested and could not bear, and one who sadly has also left just recently this year.) I received an oral book review from him this past week and he liked the McMurtry a lot, but noted that the author did not know how to finish the story. I had the same critique when I had read it many years ago. Great tale, piss-poor ending. Maybe because you, or McMurtry himself, never want it to end, all just needing the West to go on, eternally.

            An acquaintance in Santa Fe owns an adobe compound that sprawls on an advantageous plot of land just outside of downtown, under the green shade of cottonwoods near the Santa Fe River. He has two libraries on the compound. One, a converted horse barn, is filled with his own books on art, history, the architecture of the southwest, and a golden light that enters through windows on each end of the linear space. The second is on a hill above the main residence, in the large studio of a guest house that looks south to the Sun and the Moon mountains. That library was put together by one Larry McMurtry curating on retainer, the other half of his working life – book seller, book aficionado, book entrepreneur, book magnet. It is a fascinating moment when you scan the spines on the shelves that reflect a writer’s DNA. What an agreeable look inside a mind.

            So, we are planning a drive to Austin to spend Easter with Ben and Becca. A much longer visit this time, and I have a list of restaurants, heavy to the taco side, as well as a schedule of places to visit. We will have a drink in the Driskill Hotel, just because. Ben and I did when I visited the first time and now we will as family, luxuriating in the wood and leather cattle baron ambience. The accoutrements of good Texas money, a perfect manifestation of the brag. I will have with me at the ready, McMurtry’s In a Narrow Grave: Essays on Texas from 1968.  He was a journeyman when it was written, thirty-two years old, a kid, taking on a mature critique of place and culture. Could be that a Guggenheim Fellowship bestows some chops. I sent for the book specifically for this coming trip, and have held off reading it until there, in situ, in his own Texas. However, I needed a prelude so I did read the new introduction by Diana Ossana, McMurtry’s writing and business partner of many years, simply to set the stage before I got to experience Easter in Texas. Here is what prompted this meander…. “He wore what I found out later was his ‘uniform’: black-rimmed Ray-Bans, a blue oxford button-down shirt, 501 Levis, and black Stewart cowboy boots handmade in Tucson.” Well, well.

            Dave Hickey, also sadly departed (2021), is at play here as well. The Bibliography at the back of the McMurtry essays cites a Hickey fiction piece published in Riata, UT Austin, 1968, and collected in book form in Prior Convictions, Southern Methodist University Press, 1989. (Yes, I peeked in the back also while holding-off firmly on the book proper.) Hickey came late to me in life when he surfaced as the voice in the wilderness of Santa Fe, in self-exile from Las Vegas, Nevada. He was a revelation to me, an intrepid spirit who moved with open eyes and a plan, and then closed his eyes to the deceit of place, and took on the sheer impossibility of beating the medical odds and not having anything planned come to be. Santa Fe became purgatory for him. He was an art critic, a cultural commentator, a born Texan, an ardent observer of the American dream. His book Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy, is first in line on the top shelf of my re-reads.

The short fiction cited by McMurtry, “I’m Bound to Follow the Longhorn Cows,” is an early Hickey glimmer. His writing here is before he hit his stride, before the later volcanic cultural criticism. (I did not hold off on this one but jumped in head first). It is a story about the end of the Texas west that does not end. A ninety year old man, a pisser of an old hand and rancher, Jerome Cotton, is stuck in a bathtub unable to move, after his caretaker drops dead on the bathroom floor. Hickey misdirects, misleads, and when we think the story is over the old man is found alive by his son. The brag he has been remembering maybe got him through the night. “…When I get thirsty, I can drink a risin’ creek after a goose-downer plumb dry and still have the thirst for a little Texas whiskey cut with cyanide. Why, when I’m cold and lonesome, I nestle down in a den of rattlers ‘cause they make me feel so nice and warm!” This old west will never die. Until he, Hickey, kills it. He wanted to write about the world of his grandfather and then hated the nostalgia.

The last piece in Hickey’s collected stories is an essay on fiction, written in the third person, outside, looking at himself, and how he moved on to the cultural writing that suited him. It addresses “I’m Bound to Follow the Longhorn Cows” and what he thought of it in retrospect - “writing prose with the shelf-life of milk, “of modernizing the west.” The rest is part of the history of literature, the writing that took on the reality of life around him, the art that made it palatable or not, and so he became the bad boy of criticism, until he wasn’t, lost and ill in Santa Fe.

Some things happen that are a look into the root of things. Sayings, beliefs, words that make no sense on the surface are suddenly revealed at the source, as if we were welcomed back to the place where words began. One of my holy places is the Utah desert at Arches National Park and environs. I have made numerous trips there alone, with friends on two week outings with jerry cans water and coolers of beer packed for the duration, and with family trying to instill in them the hunger for red rock wilderness. We were camped, my family before Ben, just Zach and Alex, in the designated grounds adjacent to the Devil’s Garden Trail in the Park, and took a sandy walk on the paths around our tent and table to get the lay of the land at sunset. I picked up a sheered off rabbits foot, cottontail most likely, stiff and somewhat desiccated, brown and gray and there it was…the proof of luck for carrying a rabbit’s foot. It was being hunted from behind and it got away, alive. We should all be so lucky, just drop a foot and make it a clean escape. This was one source of the superstition and clearly logical to me now, a pattern of metaphor for the odd animals we know as human beings, but rooted in the way the earth works. Most of our lingering beliefs are so rooted despite having forgotten our lineage from and of the earth. We have forgotten that at heart and in bone we are animals.

The serendipity of that rabbit’s foot in the Utah desert was a look inside our cultural roots, our language heritage, our beliefs. And, at most moments of creation, there is a logic that comes from experience and makes words, or dogmas, or superstitions and magic. There is a pattern long and sinuous from our past to now that is not random, not conjured.

So, the source of this meander is the Stewart Boot Company, or is it the mystery that is Texas, or a search for elemental things, odd connections? The Texas answer is simple on the surface really; dust and oil and cattle and money, and now grassfires that are biblical, devastating the ranch life that has come to be one of the last images of the original state, blotting out the midnight blue sky. Or is it so? How does a son on a ranch near Archer City, Texas, population 1800, give or take, become president of PEN America, wearing Stewart boots? How does this river flow in esses and cutbacks and pick up interrelated circumstance in the process? It cannot be simple serendipity. There must be a pattern. A cultural link that designates books, writing, boots, and the sense of similar space, that draw a type in, a certain personality bent, an affliction of similar likes and dislikes, that ties up the loose ends enigmatically. Circuitous parallels. Random meeting of the minds across miles.

Our lives are built on the repetition of pattern. At its core here are some boys wanting to be cowboys, or deliberately wanting not to be so. Me, at the age of fifty-six having boots fitted and made from a gun carrying craftsman in Tucson.  McMurtry headed for a life of and in books, an escape from the tortuous pattern of cowboy life in his family. But he still wore the boots, and he still wrote about the old ways in the final moments of its long run in our imaginations. Dave Hickey also running from the suffocating Texas myth but writing in affirmation of its truth, before killing it all off by disavowing his “cowboy stories” and moving on. The pattern of the west infatuates certain imaginations. Serendipity, no. Cultural affiliation and affinity, yes, even across Texas to Colorado to LA to Buffalo, New York. From Las Palomas, Chihuahua to Columbus, New Mexico. Even between seemingly disparate folks. There are beliefs and predilections that link the world, confined to smaller groups unknown to each other until the seeming serendipity of reading an essay or visiting a library, or even eating a meal in a previously unknown place. Such is the architecture of connection, sure in its existence from some shadowy source deep within us all.

We may be educated or not, sophisticated as to travel or stuck in place on our insufficient acreage of red dirt. Memories rise from below, from within our bones, from our shared family and social histories. We are all sprung from a past of like, collective lineage, all working to make do and understand, and when there is a link to another with the same understanding it is an epiphany. The serendipity (although I disavow that notion here) of connection is a pleasant thing, more so than the one thing that we all share -  the certainty of our deaths. What is the more difficult work…roping or writing? Perhaps the most difficult is not answering that question, but keeping the joy of knowing that some of us share the same question, within. Some of us even share the same answers.

A proper gathering of unknown kin.

So, we arrive at the Driskill Bar, Saturday before Easter, the day nothing happens in the New Testament and even Austin is quiet, and take a seat under the longhorns. I am facing the bar and see a man stoop shouldered over his drink, blue oxford shirt, worn but pressed Levi’s neatly pulled over the shafts of his black western boots, the black frames of his eyeglasses visible through the gray hair feathered over his ears. I am spooked, and fascinated. He turns and it is not Larry McMurtry, could never have been given the circumstances. Serendipity is one thing, impossibility quite another.

But what a proper gathering of unknown kin. I will read the McMurtry essays tonight.

Pete Warzel retired this past year from a business life in media and entertainment, and ten years as the Executive Director of the Historic Santa Fe Foundation. He has published poetry, short fiction, essays, interviews, non-fiction articles, and book reviews in newspapers, national and international literary journals, regional and national magazines. Pete lives in Santa Fe and Denver and explores everywhere in between.

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