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The Master of Economical Prose, Larry McMurtry, has died

Larry McMurtry has died. He passed away on March 25, 2021, in Archer City, Texas,US, at the age of 84 years. This is sad news for book lovers like me. I am a Larry McMurtry fan, having always enjoyed his terse but lucid style of writing.

In the 1960s, McMurtry published the first of a series of books that made him famous, and that were filmed. They were all set in Texas, a setting with which he would become particularly adept at writing about. These were Horseman, Pass By (1962), adapted for film as Hud; Leaving Cheyenne (1963), adapted for film as Lovin’ Molly, and the best known of the trilogy, The Last Picture Show (1966), adapted for film as The Last Picture Show.

From 1966 to 2008, McMurtry wrote a series of novels with the memorable protagonist “Duane Moore”. These included The Last Picture Show; Texasville (1987), which was made into a film with the same name, Duane’s Depressed (1999), which I reviewed; When The Light Goes (2007); and Rhino Ranch: A Novel (2009), which I reviewed as well.

One of the authors of Brokeback Mountain

But what he was very well known for is Brokeback Mountain, the Academy Award-winning screenplay that he wrote with Diana Ossana, that is itself an adaptation of the short story written by E. Annie Proulx.

Brokeback Mountain – a daring story for its time about the thwarted attraction and love between two married ranch-hands – was originally published in The New Yorker in 1997, and then slightly expanded and republished in Proulx’s 1999 collection of short stories, Close Range: Wyoming Stories. The story together with the screenplay was republished 2005 when the film version was released, along with essays by Proulx and the screenwriters, McMurtry and Ossana, as Brokeback Mountain: Story to Screenplay.

The film, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger in the lead roles, won many awards, and the unusual love story gained cult status, with many adaptations and even Fan Fiction (to change the ending which most fans feel is just too unbearably sad).

As I pointed out in my review of McMurtry’s 2009 novel, Rhino Ranch, this collaboration was particularly successful since the writing of Proulx and McMurtry are similar in some ways: both McMurtry and Proulx often write about cowboys, farmers, labourers  ranching, and rural towns that are threatened by industrialization. Both writers often set their stories in the American Midwest and Southwest, and both writers have written series of books, for instance, McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove series, which was also filmed. And of course, both writers create the kind of iconic and memorable characters and settings which, along with their writing style, make their books good candidates for screenplays.

The fine art of economical prose

McMurtry’s last standalone novel, the Last Kind Words Saloon, published in 2014, is probably the essence of all that is “McMurtry-ish“, condensed into one book. If you were to say what that essence is of McMurtry’s writing style, it would be his economical prose, something which is really difficult to write well.

Frontispiece from The Last Kind Words Saloon.

His writing style is perfectly suited to the settings of many of his novels, which is Texas: strong, no-nonsense and to the point. And like the state, by reputation, and the cowboys and oilmen about whom he writes, it is dry and a bit caustic.

His sentences are short, succinct, spare, perfectly expressed.

His paragraphs are short but pivotal, always moving the story along.

The characters’ words are few and their thoughts are brief – because of how they are but also because this is a feature of McMurtry’s writing. 

He writes like one would think real people speak – abbreviated, choppy, interspersed with asides and the occasional swearword. Sometimes a chapter is only half a page. Yet, each short chapter is meaningful and able to stand alone as a perfect little scene – with a beginning, middle and end.

Review of The Last Kind Words Saloon

“When Wyatt walked in on Jessie she grabbed him and held him tight and kissed him passionately.
‘You fool, you could have been killed,” Jessie said, crying.
‘Yes, but I wasn’t; let go,’ Wyatt said.”

The Last Kind Words Saloon, p. 191

Other famous authors who died in 2020 and 2021

I am a Late Baby Boomer-Early Generation X child, and I am very familiar with those writers who published books in the 1980s and 1990s, and were themselves probably of the Silent Generation, born between 1928 and 1945. McMurtry was of the Silent Generation, born in 1936. And the time comes when these writers, musicians and artists reach their 80s and 90s, start to pass away, and the older I get the longer the list of my favourite authors who are no longer with us.

Apart from McMurtry, other famous authors and writers who died in 2020 and this year, include, chronologically:

  • Jan. 31, 2020 – Mary Higgins Clark, 92, American author of suspense fiction. Her books have sold more than 100 million copies in the US alone.
  • Feb. 24, 2020 – Clive Cussler, 88, American adventure novelist (Raise the Titanic!Sahara) and underwater explorer.
  • April 25, 2020 – Per Olov Enquist, 85, Swedish author (The Visit of the Royal Physician), died of cancer. Enquist has been one of my favourite novelists for years, and I have always approach his novels with a sense of foreboding, because easy to read they are not. He wrote prolifically in Swedish and won many awards, and was, by reputation, charming, curious and witty. The Book About Blanche and Marie won him critical acclaim, but it is probably for The Visit of the Royal Physician that he is best known. It is “set in the adulterous, backstabbing world of the 18th-century Danish courts, where the mad king Christian VII’s queen, the English princess Caroline Mathilde, falls in love with the court physician.” Both these works I have found to be wonderfully well written and truly intriguing.

Enquist was cited by fellow Swedish writer, Henning Mankell, in Mankell’s final diary entry before he died. “Eventually, of course, the day comes when we all have to go,” wrote Mankell. “Then we need to remember the words of the author Per Olov Enquist: ‘One day we shall die. But all the other days we shall be alive.’”

Alison Flood, The Guardian UK, Apr. 27, 2020
  • Dec. 3, 2020 – Alison Lurie, 94, American novelist (Foreign AffairsThe War Between the Tates), Pulitzer Prize winner (1984)
  • Dec. 12, 2020 – John le Carré, 89, British author of spy novels. Le Carré was his pen name – his real name was David John Moore Cornwell. He is the author of many well-known novels including Tinker Tailor Soldier SpyThe Night ManagerThe Little Drummer Girl. He died of pneumonia. In many ways, the real person was the opposite of the public persona of the author:

“Each book feels like my last book. And then I think, like a dedicated alcoholic, that one more won’t do me any harm. David Cornwell’s not a functioning alcoholic but he’s created a stable full of imperfect characters over the years as John le Carré, a name he does not answer to. It’s an abstraction that exists in his writing studio, and on the cover of his books, like a spy’s name on a phony passport.”

David Cornwell describing his pseudonym in an interview on CBS 60 Minutes, Jan. 21, 2018
  • Dec. 24, 2020 – Mitsumasa Anno, 94, Japanese children’s author and illustrator (Anno’s Journey), who died of cirrhosis. It is interesting that Anno is most famous for books that have no words, just very large illustrations. Anno’s illustrations are fantastically detailed – you can look at them for hours and keep finding new interesting things.
    His wordless picture books feature small, detailed figures, and the “Journey” series of books features full page drawings with no text, of landscapes that are typical of a specific country, with many little figures going about their business, and numerous detailed references to the art, literature, culture, and history. 
    The series includes Anno’s Journey through northern Europe, and then other journeys to Spain, Britain, Italy, Japan and China. In the same style, he illustrated the marvellous Anno’s Alphabet, In the Steps of Don Quixote (about Spain), and The Denmark of Andersen (about Hans Christian Andersen).

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