Larry McMurtry wryly called himself a "minor regional novelist," even wearing a T-shirt with that designation.
In his long and varied career, McMurtry moved far beyond that self-mocking label, receiving international recognition for his novels and other work.
From 1961 through 2017, McMurtry published nearly 50 books of varying quality, ranging from essays, memoirs, histories and biographies to the beloved novels "The Last Picture Show," "Moving On," "Leaving Cheyenne," "Cadillac Jack," "Terms of Endearment" and "Lonesome Dove," which won the Pulitzer Prize and inspired a hugely popular TV miniseries.
Accomplished literary biographer Tracy Daugherty's "Larry McMurtry: A Life," published by St. Martin's Press, traces McMurtry's improbable rise from a desolate West Texas ranch to literary acclaim.
Daugherty makes the reader feel the presence of McMurtry's personality, from his days as a book-hungry graduate student at Rice University in Houston, to his smashing debut seeing his first novel "Horseman Pass By" turned into the critically lauded movie "Hud," to his enduring career as a novelist, essayist, memoirist and historian.
The book unfolds like one of McMurtry's novels with moments like the comic visit of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters to McMurtry's home in Houston, to his relationships, mainly conducted by telephone, with a number of famous women, including actresses Cybill Shepherd and Diane Keaton and writers Leslie Marmon Silko and Susan Sontag.
Along with his regimen of writing 10 pages a day, McMurtry was a devoted "book scout" and rare book dealer, even opening a sprawling bookstore in his economically deprived hometown of Archer City. He also operated an elite enclave for book collectors in Washington, D.C.'s Georgetown.
Along with a thorough analysis of McMurtry's recasting of the Western cowboy myth with "Lonesome Dove," Daugherty examines McMurtry's novels, many of them series with repeat appearances of some of his memorable characters.
While McMurtry's late novels displayed declining abilities, Daugherty valiantly praises several of them.
Daugherty excels at detailing McMurtry's dealings with Hollywood, including the production of movies made from his books such as "The Last Picture Show," "Hud," and "Terms of Endearment."
In an amusing/harrowing set-piece, Daugherty revisits director Peter Bogdanovich's on-location filming of "The Last Picture Show" in McMurtry's hometown of Archer City, called Thalia in the book and movie. The Hollywood actors and crew encountered hostility from the town's residents.
Early in his career, McMurtry in an essay assailed the provincialism of Texas literature. He took a longer view, ranging from elegiac laments about the disappearing frontier to stories about the alienation of the state's burgeoning cities. Praised for his strong women characters, he was praised and condemned for his novels' explicit sexuality.
His autobiographical characters suffered his own travails of old age. In his later novels, he exposed the Western myths of characters like Billy the Kid and Wyatt Earp, satirizing the dime novels that first created the gunfighter legends.
Even as he aged and suffered deep depression after undergoing open-heart surgery, McMurtry continued writing each day. Daugherty looks at his close relationship and writing partnership with Diana Ossana, with whom he wrote the Academy Award-winning screenplay for "Brokeback Mountain."
In a poignant finale, Daugherty tells of McMurtry's late-life marriage to Faye Kesey, Ken Kesey's widow. The couple and Ossana lived together during McMurtry's last years.
When McMurtry died in 2021 at age 84, he was no longer a regional novelist. He belonged to the world.