A Slender Gem

Horseman, Pass By by Larry McMurtry (1961. Liveright. ISBN 978-1-63149-355-3)

Here’s a true confession. I’m writing this review while listening to the author’s kid play some awesome Texas Americana music. James McMurtry, if he didn’t inherit his father’s gift for telling stories on paper, certainly learned the craft of oral storytelling from his Pa. Concise, precise, and to the point, James doesn’t waste words while painting images in song. That’s the key, I’ve learned, as I struggle with my own storytelling. Get in, get out. Make your point as succinctly as possible while still painting images in your readers’ minds. OK then.

This is a concise, slim tale of a novel. Weighing in at a mere 171 pages in small paperback format, Horseman chronicles a short period of time on the Brannon cattle ranch in the Texas panhandle. We follow the life and daily struggles of Homer Brannon, his grandson Lonnie, his step-son Hud, and a small cast of other characters as they try to make a go of it on a hard-luck, hardscrabble bit of dirt and dust. It’s a raw, quickly paced, morose journey that young Lonnie relates in the first person. But the prose! McMurtry was just learning his craft when this, his first novel, hit print. It’s clear that he knew what he was after and, even in this early effort, hit the mark. So much so that the movie Hud, starring a young Paul Newman in an Oscar nominated role as Hud, came to the big screen a scant two years after the novel’s debut. Though Newman lost, Patricia Neal won for best actress and the movie scored two other Oscars. But the movie’s departure from the novel includes telling the story from Hud’s perspective; not the first person story of young Lonny. That sort of misses the point behind the author’s effort, one often compared to Salinger’s coming-of-age triumph, Catcher in the Rye. It’s the young character’s struggle to understand his grandfather, their circumstances, and his own place in the world after disaster strikes the ranch that is the heart and soul of Horseman. And it’s a stark, bleak, beautiful soul that propels the story to greatness even today.

I’ve read most of McMurtry, including his Pulitzer gem, Lonesome Dove, one of my top ten novels of all time. This stands right up there with his best.

5 stars out of 5.


About Mark

I'm a reformed lawyer and author.
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