August 11th, 2009

there!, Hello

Outside Thalia, TX

57) Horseman, Pass By by Larry McMurtry (Penguin Books, 1979, 184 pages)

McMurtry's first novel (originally published in 1961) follows a three generations strong family of contemporary cattle ranchers in north central Texas, as they are beset (despite the title) by at least three spiritually bad horsemen. Pestilence is the most obvious one to rear its ugly head here, in the form of hoof-and-mouth disease. A war of sorts breaks out between Homer Bannon and his brash son Scott "Hud" Bannon (as narrated by Hud's son, Lonnie). Death does come about eventually, and while it strikes one of these three characters down, for my eye, it has long been settled into the small farm located outside fictitious Thalia, Texas. Death, here, is a symbolic one, which metastasizes through the dream mythology of both The American West and role of The Cowboy Archetype long before it strikes the Bannons.

Horseman, Pass By is a rather somber (and often unnecessarily cruel) novel recounting a family's disintegration (Grandparents, Father, Son, and black housekeeper) through several key episodes, and by the time the book is done, my patience was pretty well tested. I suppose this book marked the genesis of McMurtry as Modern Novelist, it certainly fits the bill of being rather bleak and depressing with very little relief. The characters here are essentially sketches of different shades of misery. The heart of this family is its housekeeper, Halmea, and she's pretty well shat upon by novel's end, leaving for "Deeetroit" but doing so far too late to keep any sense of pride or dignity.

I'm glad to see where McMurtry started. Horseman certainly displays a strong sense of the themes and archetypes we will revisit in his future works. The book, unfortunately, demands a place amongst Literature by its serious tone. It lacks even echoes of humanity's whimsy and humor, and as such I find it a fundamentally flawed lens examining the human condition. By The Last Picture Show McMurtry discovers that humor can build greater reader empathy; while that third book is ultimately tragic as well, it is a sadness built upon a fuller view of the human experience; we laugh with those characters, we share with those characters, and ultimately we weep for them. Here? I do not laugh, I do not share, I simply observe the widening gyre of misery. This unrelentingly bleakness make Horseman an almost cartoonish novel. The points are intriguing, and the destruction of American Mythcraft is certainly provocative, but how can these points be taken seriously when the novel itself reads as so morose as to be ludicrous?