Sunday, May 23, 2021

Notes On Larry McMurtry's Moving On

The cover of my edition, found in a second hand store

There are few things I enjoy more than tackling a long, far-ranging novel with all kinds of characters, meandering subplots, and a scope that suggests an overview of society itself. Usually one has to go back to the 19th century for books like this. I still remember when I finished Bleak House, I suddenly felt empty and bereft, deprived now of a whole world.

Some 20th century novelists were capable of this feat, and one of them was Larry McMurtry. Because he was from Texas and wrote about Texas and set some of his books in the 19th century West he was a "regional" and "genre" writer. I will consider myself guilty of that perception, despite having read the fantastic The Last Picture Show years ago. A few years back a beloved student and prodigious reader gave me a copy of Lonesome Dove, which I kept on the shelf until the pandemic made me long for the open western skies and a book long enough to keep me occupied. 

Well pard, that book absolutely blew me away. It had the broad scope and array of characters of my beloved doorstop 19th century novels, yet also managed to deconstruct myths of the west without becoming didactic and dour. I immediately went out and bought and absorbed the sequel, The Streets of Laredo.

I was bummed when I heard about his recent death and happened to be in a local second hand store and saw a pristine copy of Moving On. This seemed to be some kind of sign from above. I had first noticed the book over ten years ago when I lived in Texas, where I saw it on the shelf of the local bookstore. It was a massive book and seemed to be about the reality of modern Sun Belt Texas as opposed to the cowboy past. It intrigued me, and I picked it up to read the back jacket on more than one occasion, but had never pulled the trigger. After all, it was a massive brick and at that time I was in a lull when it came to reading fiction. (One of the consequences of academia.)

The edition I bought came from the late 1980s, although it was first published in 1971. The author's introduction surprised me a bit. He basically admitted that he meandered in his writing of the book and that many readers were critical of how he depicted the emotional world of the protagonist, Patsy Carpenter. (She cries. A lot. More about that later.) He also talked about how going to grad school was a thing that smart but aimless young people did back in those days and, let me tell you, I knew at that point there would be at least one thing about this book that would really connect with me.

I had no clue, since the cover always emphasized the other closed world investigated by the book: the rodeo. I am sure the publisher felt this necessary, in order to draw in the fans of his other work. After all, who wants to read about grad students? 

The book revolves around Patsy Carpenter and her husband Jim. They are both in their mid-20s, both from well to do Texas families, and both unsure of their path in life. I had always thought that the "quarter life crisis" was a recent invention, and this book proved me wrong. When it begins Jim has decided to become a photographer, and takes Patsy with him as he follows the rodeo in order to construct a photo essay. Patsy is not enamored of the lifestyle, especially after being exposed to some rough characters and Jim himself gets beaten up by two angry cowboys who didn't want their picture taken. 

Jim decides instead to go to grad school in English at Rice. Jim and Patsy become increasingly estranged, have a baby, engage in affairs, and eventually split. At the end of the book Patsy has to help rescue her pregnant sister from the counterculture dream gone wrong in San Francisco. She is able to construct a life for herself, raising her son, helping her sister, and perhaps feeling optimistic about the future at last. 

It certainly seems slight for a plot to carry 800 pages. It is, since it's a book meant to convey the struggles of daily life and how they operate in sub-cultures like the rodeo and grad school. That's why I didn't mind. It's ultimately a story about life, and the hard choices it presents. The mid-20s is indeed a fraught stage in life, one that in my own case came with its fair share of romantic adventures and emotional pitfalls. 

The book also captures the changes of the late 1960s, but from outside of the center of the counterculture. Houston, obviously, is not Haight-Ashbury or Greenwich Village. McMurtry may be known for writing about cowboys, but he is secretly a chronicler of sex. (When I first read The Last Picture Show I was a bit taken aback by its frankness.) There's plenty of bed hopping among the characters and a sense that the sexual freedoms opened up at the time weren't just being enjoyed by hippies. There is also a surprising amount of writing detailing bad sex, the most difficult thing in the book to read. McMurtry takes great pains to show how Jim and Patsy's incompatibility is reflected and confirmed by their bedroom difficulties, which he returns to time and again, picking at the wound. 

Ultimately the novel throws cold water both on the traditional "establishment" way of life via the empty lives of Jim and Patsy's parents, as well as the decadence of the counterculture. This is most stark at the end, where Patsy must go to San Francisco without Jim to track down her 19 year old sister estranged sister. The one real false note in the book comes from the fact that her sister is living with a controlling, mean-spirited African American man and the plot unfortunately echoes old captivity narratives. There is a whole panoply of intriguing characters, but the Black and Chicano characters are not really fully fleshed out in this book, sadly. 

I found Patsy herself to be a very compelling character. As McMurtry notes, she does cry a lot. However, I did not read this as a statement on the emotional fragility of women, and more as a tic specific to her character's personality. (The other women don't cry like she does.) Through most of the book Patsy is deeply unhappy. She is obviously just as intelligent (or more so) than her feckless husband, but must constantly follow him and support his dreams, which he never bothers to actually follow through on. I interpret her tears as the explosion of her deep frustrations about her life and how it has trapped her. In many respects this book is a subtle argument for women's liberation.

Patsy is also a real person. She is not lovable, and she herself even acknowledges this, to the point of calling herself a "bitch." When I have looked at online reviews of the book by readers (as opposed to critics) they often note how they did not love the book because they just didn't like Patsy. I guess I didn't mind because I have known a few Patsy types in my life. Their privileged upbringings and tightly wound emotions make them prone to outbursts and judgement. At the same time, they realize this about themselves and are desperate to be better able to connect with people instead of drive them away. The novel is about ultimately Patsy growing up and finding a way to become happy despite the flaws in her personality. 

In telling this story McMurtry also weaves a social portrait of Houston at the time of its Sun Belt ascendancy, along with beautiful writing on following the open road and the disorienting but seductive nature of Los Angeles. (I skipped over some subplots in my description.) He was a master of rendering small moments, like the feeling of the wind when a norther sweeps into Houston.

I think I enjoyed this book even more for its flaws because so many of these moments were spread throughout it. It is such a sprawling narrative to properly render in cohesive fashion, and it doesn't really manage to do so. But hey, life is messy. If you like to spend time reflecting on this fact, go and pick up Moving On.

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