At 77, Larry McMurtry is funny.
This came as a bit of a surprise in Dallas last week, where fans came to a museum expecting yarn-spinning and left charmed by the Texas author and bookseller.
There’s more to McMurtry than Lonesome Dove, as he keeps reminding us. He doesn’t bank on jokes like Fort Worth author Dan Jenkins, but he can crack a one-liner.
Particularly when the subject is Dallas.
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Dallas is “hopeless,” he said Wednesday night, answering Texas Monthly editor Skip Hollandsworth’s question about a magazine essay last year in which McMurtry called Dallas a “second-rate city that wishes it were first-rate.”
In that essay, McMurtry ranked his favorite Texas cities in order as worldly Houston, music-minded Austin and then Fort Worth, for art museums and historic buildings like the Livestock Exchange.
Hollandsworth started by thanking McMurtry for coming to the Dallas Museum of Art to premiere his new frontier novel, The Last Kind Words Saloon.
Hollandsworth smiled and said McMurtry has a “famously hostile” view of Dallas.
The crowd laughed when McMurtry smiled and said, “Correct.”
He called Dallas “sort of a bankers’ village” and “good, if you’re a banker.”
In a rare moment, he remembered his year teaching English in 1961-62 at Texas Christian University. He lived in a modest Lubbock Avenue home that TCU recently demolished for a parking lot.
At a time when the Horned Frogs were a football power, he said, “I taught five classes. I got to teach the jocks.”
They weren’t very interested in literature, so McMurtry graded them by challenging them to pingpong.
“If I won they’d get an F,” he joked, although he actually gave mostly C’s. “If they won, they got an A.
“None of them got an A.”
Hollandsworth made it a point to tweak McMurtry about his 1997 comment to The New York Times that he was “bored to death with the 19th-century West,” vowing that the then-new Comanche Moon would be his last frontier novel. (It wasn’t.)
“That was just a tactic,” he said.
In a touching moment, he talked about his 1991 heart attack and later quadruple bypass surgery, which affected both his writing and his mood.
He joined with Arizona writing partner Diana Ossuna because the surgery left him “emotionally crippled,” he said.
Later, he explained his return to frontier stories: “In recovering from the operation, I reverted back to the Old West to help me along.”
He lamented the decline of American independent bookstores and the general decline of books, saying that the “culture of the book is going away” and that his first novels would not be published today.
( The Last Kind Words Saloon, which follows Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday to the 1881 Arizona “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,” is published by New York-based Liveright/W.W. Norton instead of Simon & Schuster, his publisher for 40 years.)
And he mentioned, of course, that his own antiquarian bookstore, Booked Up, remains open in his hometown of Archer City, a two-hour drive northwest of Fort Worth.
Buyers became confused two years ago when Booked Up promoted a sale. The event only emptied out some annex buildings on the town square made famous in The Last Picture Show.
The bookstore is open Thursdays through Saturdays ( bookedupac.com.)
Or as he said: “We are down to our last 200,000 books.”