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Essays on the American West

by Larry McMurtry

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-940322-92-7
Publisher: New York Review Books

Occasional writings on matters western by a noted interpreter of the region.

Born in the New York Review of Books, these 12 pieces are not so much essays as extended book reviews, a genre in which McMurtry—novelist (Duane’s Depressed, 1999, etc.), essayist (Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, 1999, etc.), memoirist (Paradise, p. 566), bookseller, and bibliophile—is an ascended master. McMurtry notes that good writing about the West has long been the exception rather than the rule, even though the region has produced a flood of books over the last two centuries; this condition, he adds, may be a failure of talent but is more likely a failure of community, for books seem to be less than completely cherished on the still-raw frontier, which, he writes, has quickly devolved from hero-spawning outback to ennui-spawning suburbia. At the top of his list of exceptional works are the journals of William Clark and Meriwether Lewis, full of odd spellings and veiled episodes, which “are to the narrative of the American West as the Iliad is to the epic or as Don Quixote is to the novel”; others are Leslie Silko’s novel Almanac of the Dead, the environmental writings of Edward Abbey, and the lushly inventive Zuni ethnographies of Frank Hamilton Cushing. McMurtry is kind to lesser writers, though he reserves a little venom for a deserving few: “almost any passage in any of Zane Grey’s books makes it cruelly obvious that the man failed to master even the most basic unit of his craft: the prose sentence”; “I feel sure that one reason for the immense, continuing popularity of Louis L’Amour’s works is that he shared no ironies.”

Though they sometimes have an ephemeral, dashed-off feel, these pieces will please McMurtry fans and be of interest to students of the American West.