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Books  >   Biographies and Memoirs : Arts and Literature : Authors : 

Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen : Reflections on Sixty and Beyond

McMurtry, Larry

Simon and Schuster
Published:August 7, 2001

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Do you really want to listen to a cranky old man ramble on about his childhood, his heart surgery, his hobbies, his son, and the way things, in general, aren't what they used to be? It turns out you do. In Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, Larry McMurtry comes the old pardner, and the result is a powerful elegy for the lost spaces in American life. He takes as his starting point an afternoon he spent at the Dairy Queen in Archer City, Texas, reading the pensées of early 20th-century German philosopher Walter Benjamin. At the time Benjamin was writing, McMurtry's grandparents were settling dusty reaches of west Texas, and McMurtry crosscuts neatly between Benjamin's spent, smoky Europe and his own grandparents' America: "While my grandparents were dealing with almost absolute emptiness, both social and cultural, Europe was approaching an absolute (and perhaps intolerable) density." McMurtry demonstrates a confidence almost bordering on naiveté in the way he appropriates the great thinking of Europe and applies it to his own history. He apologizes neither to the highfalutin Europeans nor to the down-home Americans, but makes them lie down together any way he sees fit. This brio makes Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen a thrilling read.

McMurtry's book-length essay loops outward from Archer City to encompass a polemic against computers, a foray into the world of book collecting, a family biography, an account of his soul-loss after heart surgery, and finally an elegy for the cowboy. This last lament casts a shadow back over what we've read. Not just over this book, but over McMurtry's whole body of work. A man who's lived his whole life in print gives us a glimpse of what has fed him, and, strangely, it's loss. "Because of when and where I grew up, on the Great Plains just as the herding tradition was beginning to lose its vitality, I have been interested all my life in vanishing breeds." The master of storytelling is finally revealed as a master of melancholy. --Claire Dederer--This text refers to the

Hardcover edition.

Product Description:

In a lucid, brilliant work of nonfiction -- as close to an autobiography as his readers are likely to get -- Larry McMurtry has written a family portrait that also serves as a larger portrait of Texas itself, as it was and as it has become.

Using as a springboard an essay by the German literary critic Walter Benjamin that he first read in Archer City's Dairy Queen, McMurtry examines the small-town way of life that big oil and big ranching have nearly destroyed. He praises the virtues of everything from a lime Dr. Pepper to the lost art of oral storytelling, and describes the brutal effect of the sheer vastness and emptiness of the Texas landscape on Texans, the decline of the cowboy, and the reality and the myth of the frontier.

McMurtry writes frankly and with deep feeling about his own experiences as a writer, a parent, and a heart patient, and he deftly lays bare the raw material that helped shape his life's work: the creation of a vast, ambitious, fictional panorama of Texas in the past and the present. Throughout, McMurtry leaves his readers with constant reminders of his all-encompassing, boundless love of literature and books.

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