WALTER BENJAMIN AT THE DAIRY QUEEN

Reflections at Sixty and Beyond

By Larry McMurtry

Simon & Schuster. 208 pp. $21

Now in his early sixties, Larry McMurtry has enjoyed -- and enjoyed seems the word for it -- a productive, interesting and in some respects exemplary literary career. He is author or co-author of more than two dozen books and innumerable fugitive pieces, but he did not begin to achieve his reputation until he was in his late thirties, which gave him ample opportunity to taste disappointment before gaining success; this is a corrective and humbling experience, one denied those to whom fame comes too easily and too soon, and the work of McMurtry's maturity reflects this.

So too -- it is in this respect that his career is genuinely exemplary -- is his sheer professionalism. McMurtry seems to have learned at an early age that the best response to disappointment is to keep on keeping on. His work is wildly inconsistent, but he has a remarkable record of following his worst failures with his most satisfying triumphs: two of his best novels, The Desert Rose and Lonesome Dove, for example, hard on the heels of two of his worst, Somebody's Darling and Cadillac Jack. In the best sense of the term he is a workaday writer, one who has supported himself by his writing rather than by academic sinecure and who has never sneered at the demands of the marketplace; if anything, the grace with which so much of his work has made the transition from book to film ("Hud," "The Last Picture Show," "Terms of Endearment") suggests that not merely can he work within the popular metier, he can raise its standards by the mere fact of doing so.

Many clues to how McMurtry got that way are to be found in Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. It is, his publisher says, "as close to an autobiography as the world is likely to see" from this notably reticent and private man -- McMurtry himself calls it an "essay" rather than an autobiography -- but it is far more revealing than most contemporary memoirs of victimization and self-infatuation. With admirable taste and discretion, McMurtry declines to tell us anything about his amatory life; instead he writes here about his life as a reader, and a writer, and a bookseller, and a Texan, all being matters of the utmost importance to him.

The book's inspiration, as well as its title, comes from the somewhat unlikely experience of reading an essay by the cultural historian Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen in McMurtry's Texas hometown of Archer City. This happened nearly two decades ago, at a time when McMurtry was in a prolonged slump, and it got him thinking about storytelling, about "the growing obsolescence of what might be called practical memory and the consequent diminution of the power of oral narrative in our 20th-century lives." McMurtry had been born into "a world of rural storytellers"; Benjamin's essay left him to ponder whether that world had vanished into, or been consumed by, the media world we now inhabit and thus, by extension, whether writing such as McMurtry had spent his life doing was itself, as well, doomed to extinction.

These are complicated and important questions, not susceptible to glib or easy answers, and McMurtry treats them with the seriousness they deserve. That is not to say this is a solemn book -- quite to the contrary, it is self-effacing and at times extremely funny -- but it is contemplative and not a little rueful. "I have been interested all my life in vanishing breeds," McMurtry says, and though he emphatically declines to pronounce the death of the novel, most of this book is about other things -- the cowboy, the rare-book trade, rural Texas -- that have either vanished or been altered beyond recognition.

Don't think for a moment, though, that this is a sentimental book. Though McMurtry is highly skilled at pulling the reader's heartstrings (viz., Terms of Endearment) his own slant on the world is objective, curious, clinical. He is drawn to Benjamin, in fact, because "Benjamin posits curiosity -- he assumes that all people are naturally curious about the experience of others, and considers such curiosity to be highly practical: if pursued, it should help people live better lives." Benjamin thought that "curiosity, through much of human time, had been nurtured by boredom," to which McMurtry responds as follows:

"Who is bored, in Western society, in quite that way today? It may be true that much of the society suffers from an essential boredom, but boredom is apt to lie deep in the psyche, well muffled by the buzz from the television set. Perhaps if the buzz could be silenced people would still be willing to sit down and listen to a good story, but we'll never know because the buzz is never likely to be silenced. There will always, now, be 24-hour news, 24-hour weather, an endless ribbon of information feeding into our lives. Real curiosity now gets little chance to develop -- it's smothered with information before it can draw a natural breath."

It's a measure of the complexity and subtlety of McMurtry's mind that even as he makes this familiar point, he precedes it with the careful, astute observation that "the human appetite for [story] is too strong" to be defeated by television, that as soon as children learn how to manipulate a remote control they learn to "channel surf through commercials, looking for a flash of active narrative." McMurtry seems to have discovered this important truth by watching his grandson, which is a valuable reminder that there's no more fruitful way to study the world than to study one's own family.

Family is central to McMurtry's novels -- by family I mean not merely the conventional nuclear one but also the family of cowboys on the trail, of showgirls in Las Vegas -- and to this reflective little book as well. As much as anything else it is a memoir of and a tribute to his parents, whose marriage was hard and unhappy yet who set examples that guided their son's life. He writes especially vividly and evocatively about his father, from whose example "character came to mean struggling on in the face of hopeless odds," whose "tragedy," like "that of many ranchers up and down the West, was that, despite skill and hard work (application, my father called it), they could not get ahead." Like father, like son:

"When I consider my 20 and more books I sometimes feel the same uneasy breeze that my father felt as he contemplated the too meager acres where his own life began and ended. My achievement may not be much different from his; it may consist mainly of the good name I bore and the gifted and responsible son I will pass it on to. I think two or three of my books are good, just as he thought two or three of the many horses that he owned were good. The rest of my writing may well end up in that great City of Dead Words on the old fiction floor of Acres of Books in Cincinnati."

That is a modest but not unfair assessment. Two or three good books -- I'd be more generous to McMurtry than he is to himself, and say five or six -- add up to a good score for a lifetime. Most writers don't do half so well, but precious few have so honest and unsparing an understanding of their lives' work as McMurtry does. Whether he'd include Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen among those two or three I have no way of knowing, but I most certainly would. In addition to all the matters already mentioned, it is a charming (but, again, utterly unsentimental) reminiscence of the old days in the rare-book business, in which McMurtry has had a side career that for most people would be a full-time job; a memoir of his own life as a reader of other people's books, "the central and stable activity of my life"; a depiction of the real, "gritty" West seldom encountered in fiction, film or myth; a reflection upon the vagaries of memory; a speculation about the connection between cowboying and his own writing; and a contemplation of a fascinating, provocative question, "How many centuries does it take to get from a pioneer family with all their possessions in a wagon to Proust and Virginia Woolf?"

For an answer, one could do far worse than Fats Waller: One never knows, do one? But in Larry McMurtry's case, about two generations seem to have done the trick. Texas soil can be a lot more fertile than it looks.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.