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Remembering Larry McMurtry

By Dee Wilson

The Saturday, March 27, Seattle Times, has an obituary for Larry McMurtry, the author of the Lonesome Dove trilogy, The Last Picture Show, Leaving Cheyenne, Terms of Endearment, and more than 25 other novels. McMurtry lived much of his  life in Archer, Texas, two hours northwest of Dallas, where he owned and operated a large book store. McMurtry was 84 years old. He was a close friend of Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and taught English at Rice University when I was a philosophy grad student there in 1966- 67. Unfortunately, I never met McMurtry when I was a student at Rice.    


McMurtry's intimate life was active and unusual. He was married in 1959 to Jo Ballard Scott; they divorced in 1966. He began living with the writer, Diana Ossana, "his friend and writing partner" in the 1980's. According to Ossana, "when I first met Larry, he was involved with five or six different women," Ossana said in a 2014 interview.  Ossana said that "he was quite the ladies man. I was always really puzzled. One day I said to him, "So all of these women are your girlfriends? And he said 'Yes.'  And I said "Well do they know one another? He said, 'Nooo." 


Dwight Garner, the author of the obituary, asserts that "he had an unusual arrangement in the last years of his life."  In 2011, he married, Norma Faye Kesey, Ken Kesey's widow, and she moved in with McMurtry and Ossana. "I went up and drug Faye out of Oregon," he told "I think I had seen Faye a total of four times over 51 years, and I married her. We never had a date or a conversation." McMurtry, like one of his famous Lonesome Dove Texas Rangers, was seemingly a man of few words in affairs of the heart.


McMurtry told an interviewer, "Because of when and where I grew up, on the Great Plains just as the herding tradition was beginning to lose its vitality I have been interested all my life in vanishing breeds."  For those of you who may have read Lonesome Dove or remember the TV series with Robert Duvall, but have not read the other two books in the trilogy, Comanche Moon (1997) is a terrific novel, one of the best novels I've ever read about the American West. If you haven't read Comanche Moon, do yourself a favor and settle in for a lengthy enlightening journey that may take you 2-3 weeks.  


For anyone who was ever a compulsive reader of Graham Greene's novels ( Heart of the Matter, The Power and the Glory, Our Man in Havana, The Quiet  American and many others) as I was in my late teens and early 20's will be interested in an outstanding review, "Original Sinner," by Joan Acocella in the March 22, 2021 issue of The New Yorker.  Greene had serious emotional problems from at least his adolescence that led to multiple suicide attempts, and eventually a diagnosis of manic depressive. According to Acocella, "in his writing years, he often lived on a regimen of Benzedrine in the morning, to wake himself up, and Nembutal at night to put himself to sleep, supplemented with great vats of alcohol and, depending on which country he was in, other drugs as well." He married when he was 23 to Vivian Dayrell Browning, a devout Catholic, and stayed married to her until he died in 1991 because Vivian would not give him a divorce, Acocella states. "After ten years, the marriage was effectively over and he spent the remainder of his life having protracted, passionate affairs, plus tucked into these main events, shorter adventures, not to mention many afternoons with prostitutes."   Acocella mocks Greene for using his bipolar disorder to justify his extramarital  romantic/ sex life to his wife. 


Given his life long emotional problems and heavy use of drugs and alcohol, Greene's sheer output of novels ( 24 at least) and journalism was remarkable.  According to Acocella, Greene wrote about 500 book reviews and 600 movie reviews. According to Richard Greene ( no relation) ,  Graham Greene's latest biographer, Greene wrote exactly 500 words a day, every day; "he counted the words and at five hundred he stopped even ... in the middle of  sentence. Then he started again the next morning." 


Greene spent much of his life traveling and living around the world, apparently to relieve his boredom, a lifelong issue for someone with bipolar disorder. Greene was a convert to Catholicism, and in his lifetime he was widely viewed as a Catholic writer wresting with sin and personal demons. Acocella describes Green's "procedure -- marrying torments of the soul to frenzies of the flesh." After several decades, I have only vague memories of Greene's novels but my memory has failed to retain a single erotic scene or story from the many Graham Greene novels I read.   Acocella quotes scathing comments by George Orwell regarding Greene's religious world view: hell is sort of a high class night club entry which is reserved for Catholics only, since the others, the non- Catholics, are too ignorant to be held guilty, like the beasts who perish. (And) But all along the Catholics retain their superiority since they alone know the meaning of good and evil." 


Given Acocella's lack of interest, even mockery, of Greene's spiritual pretentions and political outlook, one might wonder why she has read a huge amount of his work, and read it carefully.  Acocela explains:  


  " ... Graham Greene's distinction as an observer of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean is less as a political thinker or activist and more just as an artist, a recorder of the way a taxi dancer in Saigon comports herself, if she wants to snag an American husband; the way the Americans and English and French, the journalists and officers sit around on hotel patios drinking punk gins and complaining about the bugs, the way a Syrian diamond smuggler handles an English policeman whom he is hoping to blackmail ... The same is true of the novels Greene set in less far flung climes; the spiritual and political crises they tackle fade in the memory, and it is his effortless feel for the everyday that stays with us. That is the heart of Graham Greene's matter: not profundity -- how hard he reached for it -- but an instinct for the way things actually look and what that means." 

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