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folly and glory

19 July 2004

Folly and Glory ends Larry McMurtry's four-volume saga of the Old West, The Berrybender Narratives. With the completion of the series one can see its whole design: an 1,185-page serial novel with a circular pattern, following the rivers of central North America in a counterclockwise journey up the Missouri and eventually down the Rio Grande and Brazos to the Gulf of Mexico and back up the Mississippi to the Missouri again.

The setting and structure of the Berrybender novels recall McMurtry's 1985 Lonesome Dove. But where the journey in Lonesome Dove starts with a purpose, the action of the Berrybender books is absurd from its inception. If you have been reading the installments since 2002, you will recall that the appalling Albany, Lord Berrybender, takes his family plus a retinue of servants into the wilds of America in the early 1830s, purely to kill as many of the continent's animals as possible. The opening of Folly and Glory finds the Berrybenders under house arrest in Santa Fe as war gathers eastward in Texas.

The first Berrybender novel, Sin Killer (2002), strongly resembled McMurtry's 2000 Boone's Lick, which has a very similar venue and structure, though it's placed a few decades later and now seems a mere bagatelle at 287 pages. Both Boone's Lick and the Berrybenders are satiric Westerns, in the sense of something overloaded and exaggerated: a farrago. With its immense length and extreme graphic violence, however, the Berrybender series achieves a certain nobility. Much is lost in the circular journey of the Berrybender clan, including most of the Berrybenders and all of their innocence. In Folly and Glory, one of the central characters, Jim Snow the "Sin Killer," loses his innocence as well –though Jim's is an innocence of unthinking bloodshed in the name of instinctual morality.

McMurtry made his reputation with keenly-drawn studies of contemporary Texas, and cemented it with the epic Western Lonesome Dove. Unusually for a major novelist, he has grown more pulpy as his canonical status has increased. The central question one asks about the Berrybender novels is "why here and now?" Why, in 2004, are we drawn to read and write about brutal men and wide-open-spaces?

One might answer that McMurtry provides something new for the 21st century. The central Berrybender characters are women, and the protagonist of the entire cycle is Tasmin: Jim Snow's wife and Albany's daughter. Most reviewers have approvingly noted the strength of her character. Though Tasmin herself does not participate in much of the novel's violence, her will keeps the Berrybenders moving across the continent.

Strong though Tasmin and her sisters may be, they are essentially pulp characters, hard-boiled 20th-century dames imported into Western plots. They are sexually insatiable to the point of predation, and have little role in the story except as lovers and mothers. As Jane Tompkins and other critics have noted, the world of the classic Western is basically womanless. A man's true interests are himself, his landscape, and his horse, all loved with a quiet asexual fervor. For the 21st century, McMurtry invents a West of vigorous heterosexuality. Our male heroes still get to be thick-skinned and tight-lipped, but they are blessed with nubile women craving them 24/7.

An even more disturbing aspect of the Berrybender novels is their deeply ugly picture of American Indians. McMurtry's Indians are killers of fiendish atrocity. When they are not killing, they move in a benighted fog of half-articulated beliefs (especially the wandering prophet Greasy Lake, who gets his name either from Springsteen or from T.C. Boyle but gets his worldview from a mix of drugs and senility). Indian women barely exist except to serve as docile secondary wives; Indian men are either old gasbags like Greasy Lake or young testosterone-poisoned gangsta types.

It would seem that McMurtry is centrally interested in avoiding Noble Savage stereotypes. Certainly his Indians are not eco-sensitive pacifists in harmony with their sustainable resources. Yet there seems to be no middle ground in McMurtry's representation of Indians between the clichés of neo-sentimentalism and the older, brutalizing clichés of the pulp Western.

So even as I've gobbled up these four books, I'm left with a sort of literary indigestion. It's not just that these are exciting books with a few flaws in their representations of Indians and women; it's that the excitement of the series comes from its deliberate and massive political incorrectness. Without being overtly reactionary, while even being ostensibly feminist in some ways, the Berrybender series manages to roll back the genre novel to mid-20th-century stereotypical norms. Here's a case of a major writer having gained our trust by bringing the Western into the late 20th century –and now, in the new millennium, marching it backwards by several decades.

McMurtry, Larry. Folly and Glory. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.