Larry McMurtry’s Horseman, Pass By is a perfectly constructed tragedy, but because the main characters wear cowboy hats, it got consigned to the “Westerns” bin long ago by the academics and New York critics, who could then write it off as a lightweight elegy on the passing of the Old West and return their attention to boring novels about men in suits.
The hero of the novel is cattleman “Wild Horse” Homer Bannon, here described by the narrator of the novel, Bannon’s 17-year-old grandson Lonnie:
Eighty years old and more, Granddad was then, but the sandy hair on his head was still thick as ever, and his gray eyes were still steady and clear.
The old man still “worked hard days” from before sunrise to after sunset, and he was still clear thinking, calm, thoughtful and patient, and a man of honor. He’s a man who has whittled away at life a sliver at a time (to use a recurring image in the book), working his way from being a young hand on one of the giant ranches to owning his own land and a respected herd of which a man could be proud.
Bannon’s nemesis (though the old man himself never sees the younger man that way) is his stepson Hud, a 35-year-old force of nature, made dangerous in part by Homer himself (as befits a tragedy), and now uncontainable by any man.
When Halmea, the housekeeper, makes peach ice cream, Hud shoves the others out of the way to get the best portion. When Hud leaves the ranch to go out for the evening (in red suede boots!), he guns away in his convertible, his wheels spinning in the gravel. He goes away for the night and shows up the next morning “red-eyed and wild.” Or he comes home late at night roaring up across the fields in his Ford with the radio blasting.
Here’s Lonnie’s description of Hud:
Hud was thirty-five to my seventeen, and my best bet was to pay him as little mind as possible. Everybody in the county, even Granddad, took a little of Hud’s sourness, and nobody felt quite big enough to do anything about it. Granddad kept him on partly because he was a stepson, I guess, and partly because, when Hud was interested and cared to be, he was as good as the best and more reckless than the wildest of the thousand wild-ass cowboys in the Texas cattle country.
Hud got drafted and went against his will to fight the Japanese in World War II, and if this book were being written today, he’d be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder:
“Getting’ dark,” [Hud] said. His voice was a little looser, but still mean. “I’ll tell you, I like lots of light. I was over there in the jungle and had to lay out one night by myself, dark as hell and Japs all around me. Ever since then it’s been piss on the dark.”
When Hud sexually molests the ranch housekeeper, Halmea—the feminine heart of the household—Lonnie tells him not to do it again, and Hud tells him, “Fuck off… You ain’t got no private milkin’ rights.”
At this point I have to mention that perhaps the key difference between Homer and his ranch hands, or between Homer and the young ranch hand he once was, is that Homer, as a man who owns his own land and herd, gets to have a wife, while the skinny, overworked, impoverished ranch hands get a life of sexual starvation. And every single important mistake made in these male characters’ lives is rooted in sexual starvation.
Homer married his second wife, Jewel (Hud’s mother and a complaining hypochondriac who spends all her time listening to the radio), in a moment of sexual vulnerability after the accidental death of his first wife, Lonnie’s grandmother.
Lonnie is unable to protect Halmea from sexual assault, despite his genuine concern for her, because he is so sexually aroused himself by the act.
The ranch hands, Lonzo and Jesse, talk about chasing down some pussy, but never actually manage to do it and burn through their meager remaining supply of self-respect in the attempt. In fact, the only male in the book who ever actually gets laid is Hud, and that’s because he’ll use anything—even rape—to take what he wants.
The event that brings Hud’s frustration and conflict with the old man to a head is the infection of Bannon’s herd with hoof and mouth disease. One of the tenets of the old man’s life is “that nature would always work her own cures, if people would be patient enough, and give her time.”
Further, the old man believes that he’ll be able to work something out with the government men called in to diagnose the disease—that he’ll be able to deal with them as reasonable men. He’s confident in his rights as a free man and landholder. Hud, who got to know the government all too well in WWII, knows better, and he wants to sell off the cattle at a discount to someone willing to gamble that the tests for the disease will come up negative. But the old man has a different code of ethics and a different connection to the land and his animals that once again prevent him from accepting Hud’s ideas, and it’s the final straw in Hud’s frustration. The government won’t permit nature to work her cures, and Hud is too impatient to let nature work her cures.
The movie Hud is not McMurtry’s novel—not the characters, not the tone, not the theme and not the plot. The old man in the film is too stodgy, the Lonnie in the film is too stupid, and Newman’s too much of a star.
McMurtry’s book weighs on you long after you read it. You hate to see what McMurtry has shown you, but you find you can’t look away.
Horseman, Pass By
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