I recently wrote a book review on Larry McMurtry's The Last Picture Show and the experience has led me to want to write a few things down from a writer's perspective.
McMurtry is famous for his dialogue. The constant banter between Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call in Lonesome Dove has to rate among the best in literature. Gus is my all time favorite character. When he died, I felt like I had lost a family member. I felt mad enough that I could have pulled a Kathy Bates on McMurtry,"Really, motherfucker, you create this greatest of characters and then you kill his ass? What the fuck is wrong with you? Make him immortal!"
Woodrow Call, so obviously a stand-in for the God of the Old Testament, is still kind of likable. What kind of author has the audacity to create a character that makes you feel empathy for God. That shit just isn't done. Call is so inflexible and unbending that it breaks your heart. Not just for his son Newt, who he can't bring himself to acknowledge, but for him too. It has to be hard to be God and always having to be the one adult in the room.
So if Woodrow Call is Jehovah and Newt is a Christ figure, just who the hell is Gus? Way I figure, he is God's best friend, the one with a sense of humor and who holds himself to a lesser standard, but not by much.
McMurtry is not just a storyteller. He presents great myth. All great writers do. The evil men in Lonesome Dove are people who can no longer be saved, they are Satan's army, men without hearts, callous marrow eating bone suckers who think of killing no differently than they would taking a crap.
Placing these polar opposites in contrast to each other and all the other characters in between them reveals that McMurtry is presenting the world as it is, where human beings must decide whether they will slip along the easy road to perdition, or start clawing and climbing up the rocky and sometimes bloody path to salvation.
The son, Newt is the actually the key character in the story. He is the one placed between the poles, the one who who has never known the love of a father and who has lost the nurturing love of a mother who pined her whole life for a sign of affection from the absent God.
Jake Spoon, the other man who kept company with Newt's mother serves as warning to young Newt. He is every man. The one who has to make the choices. Captain Call may be hard and unforgiving but by being so, he saves many other lives while Jake's need for immediate gratification makes him so callous to the fate of others that he crosses the line into the land of the unredeemable.
Lonesome Dove is the big Myth set upon the wide plains of the American West. It is not just based on the Bible. It is the Bible, dressed up in Western clothes and told in the vernacular.
The other great thing that McMurtry does is characterization. The other thing I noticed in The Last Picture Show was that there was so many back stories to the main plot that it gave the relatively short novel a tremendous amount of depth. I pictured it in my head like my commute to Visalia. I take the road through Waukena all the way out to 198 where it comes out as Second Avenue. It is probably the most direct path to Visalia, and I can get there in thirty-five minutes.
I have written a lot about the sideroads, the intersections, and the things that are along the side of the road. Turns out, I was on to something.
In McMurtry's plotting, the side roads to the main story become very important. There are several points where the plot could take take a left or right turn and continue down a different path and the reader would follow right along without even noticing. He does this by filling out his characters with emotion, thoughts, motives and drives that tell the reader that something important has happened to these people that has caused them to be who they are.
The Last Picture Show could have just as easily let us know what happened to Sonny's dad that made him unable to be a father. Or, it could have filled us in with a lot more detail about the romance between Sam the Lion and Jacy's mother Lois.
As it is, he tells us just enough to get us interested and let us know that the ground around Thalia, Texas may be dry and dusty but if somebody would ever water the sumbitch with something other than tears there might be just enough bones, ashes, and clumps of fossilized cowshit that something other than tumble weeds could be grown there.
So the lesson to a wannabe writer would be to add side roads to your plotline and make the traveler think about making a detour.
Then there is the matter of the theme, or the message that the story tells. McMurtry always seems to make the point that there is right way and a wrong way to go about living irregardless of the circumstances. I don't remember reading anything where he makes a big fuss about religion. As far as I can see, his novels are existentialist in nature, be good for the sake of being good and not because Jesus loves you. But if Woodrow Call is not based on the God of the Old Testament, I'll be a monkey's uncle, and if Blue Duck is not based on Satan, I'll agree to be his aunt too.
In literature, the absent father usually means that the main character has to do shit for himself. You create the world you live in. Sacrifice and hard work doesn't mean that you are going to gain happiness. It does mean that you can sit outside in the evening and drink a cup of coffee, watch the sun set, listen to a coyote howl and know that you done good, that, and the wages of sin is death.
And that's the kind of message that all writers should aspire to send.