Our book today is Larry McMurtry's 1961 novel Horseman, Pass By, a lean, quick meditation on growing up in Thalia, Texas - McMurtry's stand-in for every dust-blown speck-of-nowhere town dotting the American West of the author's own boyhood, towns where the sky is broad, the work is unending, and people make what plans they can against a backdrop of indifferent fate.
Until comparatively recently, McMurtry never wrote a dull book, much less a structurally flawed one (it wouldn't happen at all, if book contracts didn't sometimes compel people - even talented people - to write novels that aren't ready and maybe never would be ready), and Horseman, Pass By was his moonshot debut, as starkly glaring a first novel as readers had seen in a generation. You couldn't tell from reading Horseman, Pass By that books as great as or Moving On or Lonesome Dove would come from this author, but you knew he's spend his life writing stuff you'd want to read.
You can't revisit this novel without fresh appreciation of how good it is. This is the story of young Lonnie, who's growing up outside of Thalia on a cattle ranch run by his grandfather Bannon, worked by hands like the good-natured Jesse, and tyrannized by loud, thuggish bad-seed son Hud. Lonnie himself is a harmless young man prone to reading (there's a treatise to be written on author stand-ins in debut novels) and dreaming, and he's not the only one. As in almost all of McMurtry's fiction, almost all the characters long for bigger, better, or at least different worlds. At one point Jesse tells Lonnie:
"I remember when I was about nineteen," he said. "I had been on my own, and I had to go back and start helpin' Dad. We had a cotton patch in Throckmorton County, right next to the highway that run in to Fort Worth an' Dallas and no tellin' where-all. I spent all my time following a couple a work mules around that field, and all day long folks would whiz by in their cars, going places I wanted to go. Don't think I wouldn't a given that whole run-down piece of land to a jumped in one a them cars and gone whizzing by some other pore bastard that had to work."
Of course, some longing are more innocent than others: this novel is entirely dominated by Hud, who's not very bright and not very nice, the first example of McMurtry's uncanny ability to write appealing unappealing characters. Hud isn't exactly a villain, but he's got a villain's impatience, and he keeps his list of grievances (against life, against luck, against Lonnie's grandfather, who gets this earful during a drive mid-way through the book) right on the tip of his tongue:
Hud was talking slow, and watching the road, but the words he said came spurting out in the close cab like blood from a chicken's neck. "You're too old to know what I want," he said. "You always were. Not only too old, bu too blind an' stingy an' contrary." Granddad listened without changing his face or saying a word. "You never thought I wanted more than you was a mind to give, did you?" Hud said. "You let that bronc fall on you an' mash you up so you thought you was goin' to die, and you got Ma to nurse you, an' she thought the same thing, an' you ended up marryin' her. Then you got well an' found out that she wasn't such a bargain, and I was just part of it, just another muscle-head for you to boss around. You thought I oughta drive that goddamn feed wagon for you, instead of goin' to college. Yeah. You held on tight then, but you sure let me go in a hurry when the draft board started lookin' for somebody to go do the fightin'. But hell, you were Wild Horse Homer Bannon in them days, an' anything you did was right. I even thought you was right myself, the most of the time. Why, I used to think you was a regular god. I don't no more."
As fictional characters from time immemorial could attest, whenever somebody tells you they used to consider you a god, that person's going to give you a wagon-load of trouble. In novels, "I thought you were everything" is practically a dispatch-bearing embassy-closing ambassador-recalling declaration of war, and it certainly works out that way in Horseman, Pass By. But what I noticed this time was how expert McMurtry is at modulating the tensions he's set in motion; by the time you're fifty pages in, you're invested enough in all the characters so that confrontation-scenes will literally have your heart racing - even when comparatively little is actually happening in the scene (fans of Lonesome Dove will remember the moment when Blue Duck comes to drink at the river where Gus and Lorrie are bathing - he comes, he drinks some water, he leaves ... and you're holding your breath the whole time).
Hard to believe it's been almost fifty years since this book first saw the light of day. That's McMurtry's whole writing life, stretched out right before us. That life's work gave readers two classics, five great books, and lots more minor classics - and Horseman, Pass By was the first of those.