Saturday, August 6, 2011

Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen

Just finished Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, Larry McMurtry's quasi-autobiography. It's fairly short, like 200 pages, but I really liked it. There isn't much of a unifying theme in the short stories that he writes, but they all stem from him reading "Illuminations" by Walter Benjamin while sitting at the Dairy Queen drinking Lime Dr. Peppers. Illumination is a contemplation on the storyteller, why he is an important figure in the community, and what purpose stories have. As he read the book he began to reflect on his own literary history and where his love of the story comes from. It makes him delve deep and talk about his family history as well as the history of the West and Texas specifically. He ruminates on everything from the romanticized notion of the cowboy, to the positive and negative effects of media saturation, to lamenting the loss of families eating together around the dinner table, and even the importance of local rodeos and rodeo queens.

At a certain point he talks about writing Lonesome Dove. He says that Gus and Call were the closest thing he could write to Don Quixote and Sancho. His goal in setting out to write the book was to kind of take the glamorized view of the cowboy and squash it. He wanted to really show how difficult and awful life as a cow herder could be. He states at one point,

"What rodeos, movies, Western art, and pulp fiction all miss is the overwhelming loneliness of the westering experience."

Instead much to his dismay, he believes that he further added to cowboy mythology, creating an even more legendary figure. Having read the tetraology, I feel that he really did manage to inject loneliness and futility into the narrative, but I still think that he is correct when he assumes he also added something to the longing that American's have for the open West. After watching the mini-series with Natalie (her first time, my 10th or so), she shuttered at the idea of having to live in those times and conditions. I can't deny that deep down part of me longs for the simplicity and even the hardships of the cowboy that McMurtry paints. The loneliness even seems idyllic for some reason, as if feeling that alone makes life more real and poignant. Being at the mercy of the elements and living that close to death or pain might make the small pleasures mean so much more. If the choice were actually presented in front of me, of course I'd rather be born in this time, but that doesn't by any means erase the internal longing that I think a lot of American's have for the Old West. It is why the mythology has stayed relevant in our culture and stories for so long, even though, according to McMurtry, the true age of the cowboy and cattle drives only really lasted about five years or so.

McMurtry would probably side with Natalie. He is kind of appalled that people would reminisce about the rough time his ancestors had with any type of yearning. He himself grew up working on a ranch, spending a lot of time on his horse, and hated most of it. He marvels at his ancestors' will to move to a place inhabited by hostile people's, where the comfort of the city or even close neighbors is far removed. It seems in the end he does not understand the reasons why his family would want to come fill the empty space in the West, but he compares it to him filling up empty pages with words. He acknowledges that their settling is not on the same playing field with that which he does with empty pages, even writing:

"The American Pioneers I knew when I was growing up worked far too hard to leave many written records: their records were their fields, their houses, the children, their herds".

During one of my favorite bits of the book, he writes in disgust about anyone who would call themselves a "modern pioneer" or compare our advances with pioneering in any way. Our modest advances in ideas and technology are not comparable to the hard work of settling new land in the wilderness, completely alone. We may feel alone at times in what we think or do, but in an increasingly global society, there are few people actually do choose to leave and isolate themselves in the way pioneers did. Even if we leave behind some people, materials, or ideas, we all hold on to quite a bit as well. Not so with the early settlers.

More than anything else, this book contains a lot of ideas, it's not really a personal history. He uses experiences to illustrate ideas, and talks a lot about learning to love books, but mostly it sounds like he was having some deep thoughts at the Dairy Queen and needed to write them down to legitimize his personal philosophy, and to put meaning to some of the narratives in his own life. I would highly recommend it if you like McMurtry's writing or are at all interested in him as a person. It's a short quick read, and has a lot to think about, even causes you to reflect on your own relationship with stories.

Anybody on GoodReads? I just set up an profile. Add me,Calvin Kenley. I'm excited to read "The Magician King", comes out on Monday.

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