Compared with many of the almost deserted small towns I passed through, Archer City looked well-kept and prosperous. But on closer inspection, it was a surprise to see how little it had changed since The Last Picture Show, set in the 1950’s, which was shot here in 1971. Everything seemed as it did then: the empty, windswept main street, the ruined cinema, the old-fashioned sputter of pickup trucks driven by young men in straw hats. This is a place that time, for better or worse, seems to have passed by. If anything, it is more forlorn than it was in 1971. Young people head for cities like Wichita Falls. Stores close for lack of customers. Nothing appears to be thrown away. If you want body parts for a 1950’s Chevy pickup, chances are you’ll find them in the backyard of a house in Archer City.
The best place to stay in town is the splendid Lonesome Dove Inn, run with impeccable hospitality by Mary Slack. Susan Sontag once told McMurtry that he lived in his own theme park. If so, the Lonesome Dove Inn is a theme park within a theme park. Every room is named after a McMurtry novel or character, and his books are liberally displayed all over the house. Even the old literary journals, thoughtfully piled up beside the beds, belonged to the great Texas writer.
Although McMurtry’s name is not universally known in his hometown ("The old folks don’t read his novels," Mary said, "and young people just know him as this friendly guy who buys milk at the grocery store"), his presence is almost overwhelming. In his book of essays, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, McMurtry writes about the nostalgia of his pioneering forebears for a time when the land was empty, "a place of unpeopled horizons." His aim, in his novels, is "filling that same emptiness…"
But he did not only do this in his imagination. McMurtry was content growing up in Archer City, with its wide-open spaces and dramatic sunsets, except for one thing: there were no books. And so, as he became a successful novelist and book dealer, he acquired more and more volumes, with a collector’s obsessive fervor. As Archer City’s old stores went out of business, he bought them up and turned them into showcases for his books, hundreds of thousands of books, on every conceivable subject: anthropology of the American West, Cecil Beaton’s stage designs, learned tomes on German humor, travel books on Africa and Siberia, and so on. Because of McMurtry, Archer City has been turned into a monument to bibliomania.
Mary put me up in the Evening Star suite. The Lonesome Dove Inn had at one time been the town hospital. You catch a glimpse of it in The Last Picture Show, when Timothy Bottoms is recuperating after having his eye bashed by Jeff Bridges. I had fancied staying in the old operating room, but the dinner prepared by Mary more than made up for that disappointment. We were joined by her brother, Gowdy, and his wife, and their little boy, dressed in a proper hat and a slick pair of boots. Gowdy was a real cowboy, who had herded cattle in Montana and raised horses in Texas.
As we worked our way through turkey with great chunks of stuffing, we talked about life in Montana—"Nice place to live if you don’t have to bathe the cows in warm water to stop them from freezing in the winter." We talked about a local boy burned all over his body by an oil rig explosion, and about the way times had changed, even right there in Archer City. Used to be, Gowdy said, that a man could leave his car unlocked. Drugs changed all that. We talked about a bunch of cowboys who brought their horses into the center of town, which irritated Mary. This may be overly romantic, but as we talked, I felt for a moment that the myths of my childhood had become real.
I asked Mary and Gowdy whether The Last Picture Show was a realistic portrayal of life in the early 1950’s. "Well," he said, "the movie is a bit bleaker than it really was." "Oh," Mary said, "but we only remember the good things. And we didn’t know anything else. It was bleak all right." Perhaps it was. But it seems a fruitless exercise to sift what is real from what is not. For me, a part of Texas will always remain mythical, for no amount of exposure to real landscapes with real people in them will ever erase the ineffable glamour of that gleaming silver revolver I once owned in my previous life as a Texas Ranger.