When the Light Goes: An Elegy for Larry McMurtry

by Daniel A. Rosen |

Other inmates have poked fun at me for my reading choices, but I don’t pay them much mind; Larry McMurtry helped keep me sane during these years behind bars. Thankfully, I’ve found almost everything he’s written on the shelves of the libraries where I’ve been locked up.

I’ve read a lot of books in my fifty years – thousands, for sure – but few authors have impacted me as indelibly and as late in life as McMurtry. I’d never read even one of his books until I ended up in jail in my 40’s. I’m not entirely sure why, but it was probably the “Lonesome Dove” effect. The harlequin-romance 80’s TV miniseries version of his bestselling book colored many people’s opinion of McMurtry as a serious author.

And yet. When that doorstop-sized 1000-plus page novel with the TV melodrama-inspired cover called out to me from the jail book cart one day, I picked it up – and once I opened it, I couldn’t put it down. While other inmates stuck mostly to fantasy, graphic, or urban novels, the adventures of Gus and Call in the old Southwest kept me busy for weeks on end. The tiny jail library had the whole series, and I ripped through each massive book.

When I wrote to a friend that I’d been occupying a lot of my time with a big book in hand, he was kidding when he asked: “Haha, what is it, Lonesome Dove or something?”

“Yeah, it is in fact – the whole trilogy – stop mocking, and go read it – it’s fantastic!” I admonished.

I begged the book cart guy for other titles of McMurtry’s, and found so much wisdom and laughter in the stories he told – at at time and place where both were in short supply. His colorful characters became friends to me – rustlers and hustlers, actresses and producers, housewives, single mothers, academics, layabouts, writers, oilmen, frontiersmen, rodeo men, and the rest. They served up some of the only moments of levity to be found during very tough months. I often caught myself laughing aloud in my cell, when my usual emotions were more along the lines of regret, sorrow, and anguish.

I didn’t read McMurtry’s books so much as I devoured them, from well-known titles like “The Last Picture Show” and “Terms of Endearment” to more obscure ones like “Moving On” and “Some Can Whistle.” They’ve been a kind of guilty pleasure, and one of the few I’ve had. Throughout these years, I’ve almost always had one of his books in my cell. That’s only been possible because McMurtry’s bibliography is stunningly wide, spanning decades and genres. Running across them all is a warmth, humanity, and absurd, self-reflective humor that reinforces the temporal nature of pain and suffering.

I’ve read over 500 books in the last five years in jail and prison – filling many days with just mindless suspense thrillers, but I’ve managed to find decent literature in the stacks too. My family and friends have generously supplemented those offerings by sending me a lot of good books culled from best-of-the-year lists. I read them, pass them around the cellblock, and then donate them to the library so other inmates can enjoy them too.

Few authors have made the kind of impression on me as McMurtry has. Only a handful of others do I consider cherished friends and role models as a writer: John Steinbeck, John Irving, Michael Chabon, and a couple more. Of them all, I think McMurtry was the purest of storytellers, writing for decades with simplicity, joy, and elegance that captured the human condition few others could.

We’ve lost an awful lot in the past year: too many people sacrificed to a virus for statistics to even accurately reflect, jobs, homes, businesses, democratic norms, our blinders about racial inequality, and more. I’ve lost plenty myself too in these last five years – my marriage, my home, my career, my liberty and the right to make decisions for myself. I’ve gained some things too, and I try to focus on that these days. Otherwise you become a walking human lament, and no one really wants to be around those people. They’re everywhere in here. One thing I’ve gained is the ability to express myself with words on a page, and that’s a lot. Larry McMurtry helped me locate that voice.

The end of my time behind bars is in sight now, and I’ve only gotten this far because of books like Lonesome Dove. They were there for me during the bleak days, and they carried me through the darkness. The thing about darkness is, when the light goes, it’s only then that you can see the stars shining brightly in the sky. When old Duane saw that final sundown from his West Texas front porch, he knew it was the last he’d see, and he was at peace. The man may be gone, but the shine he brought to one dark prison cell still lights up the room.

[Ed. Note: My prison reading list is forthcoming.]

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