Critic, Cowboy and Novelist Share Fries and a Coke

Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections at 60 and Beyond , by Larry McMurtry. Simon & Schuster, 204 pages, $21.

Larry McMurtry is “the fastest pen in the West” (or so says USA Today )-but can he write fast enough to make sense of the title of his memoir, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen ? It’s easy to imagine Walter Benjamin at a smoke-filled SoHo cafe, but not, for heaven’s sake, at the D.Q.! And yet Mr. McMurtry is not being cute. He’s dead earnest in this book, which is as down to earth as Texas dust, or the musty smell of an old bookstore.

Walter Benjamin never reached the Statue of Liberty-our freedom queen-let alone the Dairy Queen in Archer City, Tex., where Mr. McMurtry lives. When Benjamin, fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe, set out for the United States in 1940, he got only as far as the Spanish border, where he took his own life rather than risk capture.

Many of his friends who actually got here hated it and scooted back to Europe after the war, but Benjamin could foresee many delights in America, such as Charlie Chaplin and Mickey Mouse, experiments in steel and glass construction like the great skyscrapers of New York and Chicago with their sheer surfaces, and the vast emptiness and barbarity of it all, gloriously free from all the marble, statues, plush carpeting of civilized Europe. His friend Gershom Scholem had tried to browbeat him into going to Palestine, to the old promised land; but for Benjamin, the Moses of popular culture, the promised land was the land of mechanical reproducibility, the U.S. of A.

Benjamin has been hot among bohemians and academics, but hardly among the inhabitants of mainstream culture; and yet he is the critic who, in The Arcades Project , in essence said to his fellow intellectuals: Your job is to figure out what gives the people pleasure; let that guide your work . Few novelists have given more pleasure to more people in recent years than Larry McMurtry. He tells the epic story of the cowboys whose cattle drives were halted by the Chicago stock yards. My Uncle Charlie was a cowboy who worked for the stock yards; he was the last man off his horse when the whole operation closed down in the 70′s. When we got together as family we did not talk books, we played poker; except once when Charlie told me to read Mr. McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove .

Mr. McMurtry read Benjamin’s Illuminations in 1980 when he was stuck in writer’s quicksand. Benjamin lifted his spirits. It was, to be specific, an essay called “The Storyteller” that got the despondent novelist up and running again. Benjamin has a reputation as a melancholic soul, but more often than not he lifts the spirits of those who read him-it’s his subtle bias in favor of the future and happiness that does it again and again.

“The Storyteller” was first published in 1936, the year Mr. McMurtry was born; and it first appeared in English in the 1960′s, just when Dairy Queens were popping up in the hamlets of West Texas. Both Benjamin and Mr. McMurtry are book fanatics, both readers more than theorists. Benjamin’s father was an antiquarian book dealer; so is Mr. McMurtry. That is where, in Mr. McMurtry’s mind, the similarities end: For him, Benjamin represents an ideal, the European man of letters-an ideal that inspires him and goads him on. Benjamin means “Europe” for Mr. McMurtry, what he craves for himself but realizes is very, very distant from the Texas that has been and is his home.

For Mr. McMurtry, Benjamin means art with a capital A. In “The Storyteller,” Benjamin laments the decline of the art of storytelling and the rise of a culture of indigestible information (and this was half a century before the Internet, though news radio had already begun). This helps Mr. McMurtry recover his sense of his own vocation, because it recalls to him what Texas was like when he grew up-few books if any and a scattering of lonely, taciturn people.

At the emotional center of this book is Mr. McMurtry’s father’s death and his own near death. His father had kept the family home (a home on the range), though the days when cowboys could herd cattle up to Montana were long gone; he had been very disappointed when his son turned to books rather than cows and horses. McMurtry père was motivated by the ideal of family pastoralism (the same ideal that trapped me on a farm in Illinois until I escaped east). Family pastoralism was the ideal; in reality, his father was a nomad who prized his solitude, time on a horse above all else. (Mine prized above all else his time alone on a tractor.)

Larry McMurtry’s own encounter with death-only glancing, thanks to quadruple-bypass surgery-left him unable to read for months, and that set him to exploring what connects him to his father and the lonesome cowboys. In the course of this meditation, it becomes clear how right Mr. McMurtry was to take Benjamin as his spiritual guide. For Benjamin, the central human imperative is for those who live in the present to convey as best they can, for the benefit of future generations, a sense of life as it was lived in the past.

Until Benjamin’s lesson really hit him, Mr. McMurtry had seen only an unbridgeable distance between Texas and Europe and, worse, between himself and his father. But now Mr. McMurtry understands that his obsession with books is as immense and unquenchable as his father’s obsession with cattle. These are obsessions that isolate men (Susan Faludi, listen up!). Novels isolate us, too, as Benjamin argued, which makes them different from stories. Stories pull a crowd together; novels we consume in private.

Mr. McMurtry writes about a world of nomads and isolatos. There is something destructive and self-impoverishing in the activities some Americans choose, and it is his job to record these lives just as they are led-in the relative certainty that the arts practiced by craftsmen such as cowboys and novelists will one day disappear. The fact that such arts can emerge means that they must one day disappear. By the end of the book, Mr. McMurtry has answered the question he put to himself in the beginning: How can art arise in a place as barren of art as the American West? It is to his father and his identity with his father that he must look for the answer, in their common pursuit of ideals that they can never realize: “the sense of that crack in reality between what is and what might be, my father passed on to me.… It may be the crack where books and songs are born.”

I am as obsessed with books as Larry McMurtry is; my father was as unhappy when I turned to books as his father was. And part of my day job-I’m the editor of the Harvard University Press edition of Walter Benjamin’s writings, some 3,000 pages in total-is to get Walter Benjamin into as many Dairy Queens and Burger Kings as possible. This is what I know: Only someone who comes from such cultural poverty as Mr. McMurtry could be so hungry for culture.

From the heart of European artistic luxuriance, Benjamin imagined our artistic poverty and wrote for us. For that, and for the good books of Mr. McMurtry, I give thanks.