Roads by Larry McMurtry

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I can’t get enough of these Larry McMurtry non-fiction books, as I’ve discussed before and another time and one other time.  In this book, McMurtry drives American highways, writing down anything that occurs to him or seems interesting:

The most interesting thing that ever happened to me in southern Oklahoma happened when I was a boy.  My backwoods uncle Jeff Dobbs took me deep in the woods, to the cabin of an aged Choctaw preacher, an old man said to have the power to draw out tumors.  In his small cabin there were long rows of Mason jars, each containing a tumor that had been drown out.  It was dim in the cabin.  I couldn’t see what was in the jars very clearly, but it definitely wasn’t string beans or pickled peaches.  I was very impressed and not a little frightened.  Uncle Jeff knew a few words of Choctaw — listening to him talk to the old man was when I first realized there were languages other than English.

More than fifty years after I peered at them in the gloom of the old preacher’s cabin, the shelves of tumors reappeared in Pretty Boy Floyd, the first of two novels I wrote with Diana Ossana.  This time “the cancers,” as they are referred to, appear as decoration in a backwoods honky-tonk.

He muses on how the great travel writers tend be into only one type of landscape (McMurtry’s is the plains):

Charles Doughty lived almost his whole life in a wet country but wrote his great book about the desert – the same deserts would later draw the best out of Wilfred Thesiger, St. John Philby, T. E. Lawrence, Gertrude Bell, and Freya Stark.  Aurel Stein, Sven Hedin, Charles Marvin, Mildred Cable and Francesca French (the nuns of the Gobi), Curzon, and Ney Elias returned again and again to central Asia.  Humboldt, Alfred Russell Wallace, and Henry Bates took their genius to the Amazon; while Mr. Darwin looked hard wherever he went.  Certainly, when it came to those finches in the Galapagos, he looked every bit as hard as Picasso looked at Matisse.

Charles Doughty

But even the ocean interests McMurtry, an epic reader:

My drives across the American land had taken me far enough that I had begun to feel a vague urge to try a different mode of travel.  For the past month or so I had been reading the leisurely, tolerant travel books of the English zoologist F. D. Ommanney, a man who knows a lot about fish, and a lot, also, about the world’s oceans and the people who live beside them – particularly the island peoples of the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific.  F. D. Ommanney was a fish finder, a man who, in the years after World War II, puttered around in remote oceans attempting to estimate whether a given stretch of ocean contained fish enough to make commercial fishing profitable.  I think, though, that what he cared about was the sea, not the fishing.  In books such as A Draught of Fishes, The Shoals of Capricorn, Eastern Windows, and South Latitude, he describes his journeys through the seas and islands so appealingly that a landlocked person such as myself begins to feel that he has really been missing something: that is, the world’s oceans, along whose trade routes – invisible highways – the great ships proceed.

The appeal of F. D. Ommanney’s books – fairly popular in the 1950s but mostly forgotten now – is their intimacy with the sea and its ways, and also with the ways of people whose lives are bound to the sea.  Conrad and Melville wrote powerfully of the oceans, but their works don’t exactly bring one into an intimacy with the world of waters.  In Conrad and also in Melville the sea is too powerful, too often the environment of crisis, to be merely appealing.  Though these great writers see the ocean’s beauty they rarely allow the reader to be unaware that this beauty comes with a threat, moral or physical or both.

Ommanney is not a novelist – he is just a man with a deep interest in the natural world, particularly with the world of the ocean; through many travels he preserves a fond curiosity about the lives of peoples of the islands, people who can scarcely imagine a life apart from the sea.

Fragrant Harbour

While driving in Arizona, this occurs to McMurtry:

Near Wilcox there’s a famous tourist stop advertising THE THING – in fact an Anasazi mummy.

(actually this article seems to suggest it’s a fake made by a well-known maker of sideshow artifacts)

The Thing

McMurtry gets going on the Plains Indians wars, and Ranald Mackenzie:

Mackenzie was a highly effective officer, one of the most skilled and determined to fight on the plains frontier.  But he was not a happy man.  Juste before he was to marry, in 1883, he went crazy and spent the remaining six years of his life in an insane asylum in New York State.  Ranald Mackenzie’s insanity is one of the strange, haunting mysteries thrown up by the frontier conflicts.  Many pioneer women went crazy, and it was not hard to see why; the women were not necessarily overdelicate, either.  The living conditions were just too bleak, too isolating.  But the insanity of Ranald Mackenzie, one of the most disciplined and succesful officers to participate in the campaigns of the plains frontier, is evidence that the price of winning the west was not simple and not low, even for the winners, not when one considers that Ranald Mackenzie, the soldier who took the surrender of Quanah Parker and the Kwahadi Comanches, ended his days in a nuthouse, in 1889, not long before the massacre at Wounded Knee.

Wikipedi tells us: “He bought a Texas ranch and was engaged to be married; however, he began to demonstrate odd behavior which was attributed to a fall from a wagon at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in which he injured his head. Showing signs of mental instability, he was retired from the Army on March 24, 1884 for “general paresis of the insane”.[5]”

Driving in LA, some reflections on the movie biz:

The studio executives I would go and talk to about one project or another were seldom even half my age.  Now they were only a little more than a third my age.  I was in my sixties, the were in their twenties.  SOme of them seemed puzzled that an older person would still be writing screenplays.  If I happened to mention, by way of illustration, a movie made as long ago as the 1950s – twenty years before any of them were born – they looked blank and, in some cases, a little disdainful.  I might as well have been talking about the Dead Sea scrolls.  There is always a listener (the executive) and a note taker at these meetings.  If I mentioned Touch of Evil or Roman Holiday the note taker would dutifully take a note.

I don’t know why this age gap surprised me.  Hollywood, as I said, has always been about beauty and desire, neither of which is entirely comfortable with age.  Garbo was not wrong to retire.

Near Acoma, New Mexico:

Coronado came past these pueblos as he sought the cities of gold, which means that the Indians of this region have experienced an unusually long colonial oppresion.  Acoma, the sky city built on top of a 365-foot bluff, revolted in 1599 and killed a party of tax collectors sent by Governor Juan de Onate, who proved to be a revengeful man.  He overwhelmed the Acomas, took several hundred prisoners, and cut one foot off any male over twenty years old, probably raking in a lot of seventeen- and eighteen-year old feet in the process…

I’ve been to Acoma many times, where the concessionaires are – to put it mildly – not friendly; and I’ve visited, at one time or another, most of the pueblos near Albuquerque.  I’m not comfortable there and am even less comfortable in the communities north of Santa Fe.  These are all places where the troubles are old and the troubles are deep.  The plains below the Sangre de Christo may be supremely attractive visually, as they were to Miss O’Keefe, but socially they are very uncomfortable – the result of that long oppression.  North of Santa Fe is where the toughest of the Indians and of the Spaniards survived.  It’s not a good place to have a car break down – not if you’re an Anglo.



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