Sunday, October 20, 2019

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THE STORYTELLER

Walter Benjamin At The Dairy Queen: Reflections at Sixty and Beyond, by Larry McMurtry. Simon & Schuster, 204 pages, $31 Can.

I first learned of the Texas-based writer Larry McMurtry from Bobbie Louise Hawkins, herself a Texan and a writer. This was many years ago, in the kitchen of Hawkins’s house in Bolinas, California, where Bobbie, who was also an accomplished cook, was whipping us up a Tex-Mex lunch. Maybe that’s what started her thinking about McMurtry, already by then a well-known popular novelist, some of whose books, beginning with The Last Picture Show, had been turned into successful Hollywood movies.

Hawkins’ point was that McMurtry, someone who wrote primarily about Texas for mass audiences, was neither merely a regional author nor a potboiler pop writer. There was more to him than that. In due course, on Bobbie’s good advice, I read a couple of McMurtry’s books. Whatever else he was as an author, McMurtry was certainly, as anyone who’s read any of his twenty or so novels knows, a good storyteller, one of those people who makes the telling of a tale seem almost effortless.

For those curious about the range of McMurtry’s interests, his intriguingly-titled Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen provides a pretty good account of what’s on his mind. His “reflections at sixty and beyond” take the shape of four full-length essays about geographical place and storytelling, reading, book collecting, and the parallels between the end of the cowboy (or the myth of the cowboy) and the possible end or obsolescence of fiction. Along the way, there are also some appropriately chilling remarks on mortality.

McMurtry starts off drolly, one summer day in 1980 in the Archer City, Texas, Dairy Queen outlet (Archer county is where McMurtry was born and raised), “nursing a lime Dr Pepper (a delicacy strictly local, unheard of even in the next Dairy Queen down the road–Olney’s, 18 miles south–but easily obtainable by anyone willing to buy a lime and a Dr Pepper),” while reading Walter Benjamin’s essay, “The Storyteller.”

I, too, have read the famous “Storyteller” essay by the German-Jewish literary and cultural critic who died in 1940, by his own hand while fleeing the Nazis. It’s one of the three (maybe four, if you add McMurtry’s reflections) indispensable works on the subject of storytelling that I know. The other two are John Berger’s essay “The Storyteller” in his book The Sense of Sight, and Mario Vargas Llosa’s extraordinary novel of that name. Benjamin’s essay is, as McMurtry says, “an examination, and a profound one, of the growing obsolescence of what might be called practical memory and the consequent diminution of the power of oral narrative in our twentieth-century lives.” I think one could today as easily add written narrative to the list of what’s becoming obsolescent and of diminishing power in our time, but that’s another story.

In attempting to identify some of the correspondences between Benjamin’s observations and his own situation, McMurtry’s memoir is inevitably a story of what it’s like to grow up in the bleak cowboy country of small west Texas towns, where the “aridity… was not all a matter of unforgiving skies, baking heat, and rainlessness; the drought… was social, as well as climatic.”

In places like Vancouver, Toronto and other large cities, the Dairy Queens are now little more than unfashionably down-at-the-heels early examplars of the fast-food, chain-
franchise virus of global capitalism. But in arid Archer City, c. 1980, the Dairy Queen served as one of the rare settings with the “potential for storytelling of the sort Walter Benjamin favoured.”

As McMurtry says, “It was startling to sit in that Dairy Queen, reading the words of a cosmopolitan European, a man of Berlin, Moscow, Paris, and realize that what he was describing with a clear sad eye was more or less exactly what had happened in my own small dusty county in my lifetime.” I can add that it’s still pretty startling reading Benjamin in the city of his birth, Berlin, as I’m doing as of this writing. McMurtry notes, “I was born, in the year of the essay [1936], into a world of rural storytellers,” then asks, “–and what had become of them?”

Answering that question will require a hundred pages or so of telling the story of his pioneering ancestors and their futile scrabbling for a living (a tale of cowboys, cattle and
grass), but one possibility McMurtry immediately canvasses is found in Benjamin’s own speculations. “In every case,” says Benjamin, “the storyteller is a [person] who has counsel for his [or her] readers. But if today ‘having counsel’ is beginning to have an old fashioned ring to it it is because the communicability of experience is decreasing.” McMurtry notes that one reason Benjamin “offers in explaining why we no longer exchange experience (by telling or listening to stories) is that experience has fallen in value–‘and it looks as if it will continue to fall into bottomlessness.'” Or as a friend of mine recently dourly quipped, Books today have less intellectual credibility because intellectual credibility has less credibility.

Whatever the explanation, we are well into the subject of experience and its communicability, and in the company of a writer who is neither merely regional nor pop. When McMurtry came along, about a half-century after the first McMurtrys settled Archer County, “there were still only a few people to be seen, but life had nonetheless accumulated, in all its puzzling but pregnant detail.” In the evening, once the chores were done, the covey of McMurtrys gathered on the front porch or around the fireplace, depending on the season, and told stories. “None of these stories were ever told to or directed at me,” he says, “but I was allowed to listen to whatever stories the adults were telling one another.” Except for the occasional square dance (radio could only fitfully be heard), “no one had any entertainment except the exchanging of experience that occurs in storytelling. So it was, no doubt, in rural places throughout the centuries; then, there was no media–now, it seems, there’s no life.”

McMurtry has considerably more to say about “the extent to which what’s given us by the media is our memory now,” and wonders, “Does mere human memory, the soil that nourishes storytelling, still have any use at all?” But by now, the drift of what McMurtry’s saying is plainly enough established that there’s no need for a detailed recapitulation of the argument.

Here, and in other parts of Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, McMurtry provides an engrossing, often humorous tale of his own successful escape from the fate of being a cowboy, as well as his subsequent adventures as a reader, writer, and obsessive book collector, and a grim, credible account of the wrong-headedness of what cowboys were fated to do.

“In a sense the whole range cattle industry, source of a central national myth, was a mistake, based on a superficial understanding of plains environment,” he says. The 50 million buffalo that had once grazed the plains were wiped out in a scant 20 years, replaced by 45 million cattle, “to the ultimate detriment of everyone’s home on the range.” One of the points that McMurtry makes is that the plump Hereford cattle was simply the wrong animal for the environment; McMurtry’s grandparents and their descendents would have done better with skinny Mexican longhorns. “Now the plains are so overgrazed–the public lands particularly–that should a major drought occur, the potential for a new dust bowl is great.” McMurtry’s estimate of the accomplishment of his ancestors, as well as his own achievements in “word-herding” rather than cattle-herding, is a consistently thoughtful pleasure to read.

“It is usually when one is in one’s sixties that one begins to wonder whether the customary yardsticks by which success is measured have any relevance at all,” McMurtry says. (I’ve begun to wonder about that as well, having arrived at a similar age.) “My father, as he neared the end, counted himself lucky that he had owned a few good horses in his life… Though he enjoyed great respect, and the love of his family, in his last
years he often expressed to me his conviction that reality was more than a little cracked. Somehow, life hadn’t really added up; his works and days hadn’t been a harmony…”

McMurtry has similar intimations. “When I consider my twenty and more books I sometimes feel the same uneasy breeze that my father felt as he contemplated the too meager acres where his life began and ended. My achievement may not be much
different from his… 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.” As for the rest, so be it.

All that’s well and good–and you can decide for yourself whether McMurtry’s worth your while–but what remains is the issue of what use or value memory and experience have, a question to which McMurtry, sensibly enough, doesn’t attempt to provide a definitive answer. Other than recognizing it as the question any of us who aspires to storytelling must confront, I’m of two minds about it. There’s no practical difference for me between oral storytelling and writing (the latter seems in as much peril as the former). The social-political context, on many days, strikes me as being as bleak as those small west Texas towns McMurtry knows. It just can’t get any dumber, or more vicious, I more-than-occasionally think, contemplating the latest vulgarity or atrocity.

But those dark thoughts don’t encompass the whole of the territory. Not a year has gone by that hasn’t brought a book, or several, at least as interesting as McMurtry’s. While, at this late stage, I’m more painfully aware of my limitations than before, I, too, continue to fashion stories, though mine are more of the fragmentary kind that Benjamin tended towards rather than the holistic sort.

In a practical sense, it doesn’t much matter to me personally. I’ll go on doing what I do in writing and storytelling, simply because doing so is pretty much inextricable from the rest of me. I’m also willing to lend a hand to the social politics of it all, in which we struggle for the kinds of lives we hope to have. My own experience of the matter is that my life and those of my friends continue to be replete with stories, from large narratives to everyday stories. The other day, a sparrow crashed through my balcony doors and scuttled across the floor to find a refuge under the big sideboard cabinet I inherited from Aunt Nonni… and immediately, I’ll have to begin explaining who Aunt Nonni is, etc. Well, enough. If we’re raising the wrong animal for the environment, the Internet will soon
enough inform us.

As for Walter Benjamin, who died at age 48, “almost from the beginning he labored under the curse of the exaggerated expectation which his own early brilliance had created. He is the archetype of the self-disappointed writer,” McMurtry observes. “What Walter Benjamin ended up with was a few finished and admirable essays… and a slag heap of notes, flashes of light that are just that, flashes.” McMurtry adds, “But the sparks do have a white brilliance that in itself is enough.” McMurtry cites Benjamin’s experimental, fragmentary book of aphorisms, One Way Street (just about the only book he published in his lifetime), and suggests that it was probably “the mode he might always have chosen had he not been seduced by the notion of size, of large ambition, or the masterpiece.” It’s a shrewd and fair assessment, I think, and perhaps even a recipe for some contemporary writers.

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Stan Persky

Stan Persky

Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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