The Essential Larry McMurtry

Larry McMurtry, who died on Thursday at age 84, left behind a trove of work that explored the myths and legacy of the West. Many of his best books — including “Horseman, Pass By,” “The Last Picture Show,” “Leaving Cheyenne” and “Lonesome Dove” — were made into movies or TV shows that have since eclipsed the original novels. Do yourself a favor and pick them up again.

‘Horseman, Pass By’ (1961)

McMurtry wrote his debut he was a graduate student at Stanford, and it was later made into a movie called “Hud.” Reviewing the book for The Times, Wayne Gard wrote: “Some popular notions of life on a Texas cattle ranch are exploded in this short, realistic novel … All through the narrative, four letter words come not in a mere sprinkle but almost in a torrent. To some, the language will seem commendably earthy — to others, lamentably vulgar. Yet it catches the idiom of the cowhand. Larry McMurtry not only has a sharp ear for dialogue but a gift for expression that easily could blossom in more important books.”

‘Leaving Cheyenne’ (1962)

The Times's reviewer wrote that “Leaving Cheyenne” — the decades-long tale of a West Texas love triangle — was “brightened and warmed by the author’s grasp of his setting and by his ear for the music of talk in Archer County. And I couldn’t have been happier going along with this disarming trio on a raccoon hunt, or catching coyotes by roping them, or butchering hogs.” In a 1971 reappraisal, Walter Clemons called “Leaving Cheyenne” a “funny, wonderful, heartbreaking” book. “There’s nothing Larry McMurtry doesn’t know about the way Texas people think and talk,” Clemons wrote. “As a displanted Texan myself, I admit a bias here: The voices in the book make me sick for home. Yet I believe a reader from anywhere else will respond to delicacy and precision when he hears it. I like the book most of all because I like the people in it.”

‘The Last Picture Show’ (1966)

“Texas teenagers complain that a small town is so dead there is nothing to do on a Saturday night except sit on the curb and watch the sewer back up,” W.T. Jack wrote in his review of McMurtry’s third novel, a bittersweet coming-of-age tale that has long remained in the shadow of Peter Bogdanovich’s movie version. “McMurtry is an alchemist who converts the basest materials to gold.”

‘In a Narrow Grave’ (1968)

In this essay collection — which The Times did not review — McMurtry grappled with what it meant to be a Texan. “Before I was out of high school I realized I was witnessing the dying of a way of life — the rural, pastoral way of life,” he wrote in the preface to the book’s 1989 edition. “I had actually been living in cities for 14 years when I pulled together these essays; intellectually I had long been a city boy, but imaginatively I was still trudging up the dusty path that led me out of the country.” If you read just one piece in the book, make it “Take My Saddle From the Wall: A Valediction,” about McMurtry’s family.

‘All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers’ (1972)

Jim Harrison reviewed this picaresque tale of a young writer on the brink of success for The Times — and loved it. “It is difficult to characterize a talent as outsized as McMurtry’s. Often his work seems disproportionately sensual and violent, but these qualities in ‘All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers’ are tempered by his comic genius,” Harrison wrote, before going on to compare McMurtry to both Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer.

‘Lonesome Dove’ (1985)

In his epic trail-driving novel, “Mr. McMurtry weaves a dense web of subplots involving secondary characters and out-of-the-way places, with the idea of using the form of a long, old-fashioned realistic novel to create an accurate picture of life on the American frontier,” Nicholas Lemann wrote in The Times’s review. “He gives us conversationless cowboys whose greatest fear is that they will have to speak to a woman, beastly buffalo hunters, murderous Indians, destitute Indians, prairie pioneers, river boat men, gamblers, scouts, cavalry officers, prostitutes, backwoodsmen; open plains and cow towns; the Nueces River and the Platte and the Yellowstone. Everything about the book feels true; being anti-mythic is a great aid to accuracy about the lonely, ignorant, violent West.”

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