Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry

The shame he felt was so strong it stopped the words in his throat. Night after night, sitting in front of Wilbarger’s tent, he had struggled with thoughts so bitter that he had not even felt the Montana cold. All his life he had preached honesty to his men and had summarily discharged those who were not capable of it, though they had mostly only lied about duties neglected or orders sloppily executed. He himself was far worse, for he had been dishonest about his own son, who stood not ten feet away.

--Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove

Lonesome Dove will probably wind up as the best book I’ve read this year.

At 860 pages, it is a lot longer than I typically prefer in my fiction. It is also a western, which aren’t typically something I gravitate to.

It was a little hard to break into, a good 100-150 pages before I started to get involved in the story. But by the end I didn’t want it to be over, and plowed through the final 100 pages in a sitting.

This one took a long time for me to read, and taking a week-long business trip followed by a bout of COVID didn’t help my pace. I have now officially fallen off my goal of 52 books this year (one book/week). But, it was worth the investment. Again, I’m no western aficionado, but personally I liked Lonesome Dove better than Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed Blood Meridian. 

It’s hard to say exactly what spoke to me, but probably mostly the characterization. Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae are pretty damned real, despite being from an age and place (1870s Texas) that seems very dim and remote. These dudes are Texas Rangers but also quasi outlaws, violent, and no one you want to cross. When Call’s rage is summoned, watch out. Each have killed dozens of men, stomped and kicked the teeth out of many more. But they’re not cardboard cowboy cutouts. They and the rest of McCarthy’s characters are very real, believable, human.

Lonesome Dove is obviously not fantasy/sword-and-sorcery but it puts you in another place and time, another world, the old west in the waning days of the rapidly closing frontier. We meet some really, really bad actors (Blue Duck, a frightening, murderous, outlaw Indian with no sense of morality, no mercy). We experience what an epic cattle drive from Texas to Montana might have been like—life on the open plains exposed to every manner of weather, a lack of water, occasional run-ins with Indians, cattle thieves, and outlaws, getting thrown from a horse or gored by a bull and having no access to medical facilities. The violence is rare but shocking and faithfully depicted. All of this material takes you out of 21st century living and into a past that is both fascinating, and one I’m glad I was not born into. Robert E. Howard may have longed for such a past, but not me. Though I would love to see the pristine landscapes of untouched Montana.

One of the book’s major themes is duty vs. social obligations and family. Gus’ priority is on people, and relationships. He wants to get married, he never stops talking, he enjoys life’s pleasures. Though Call criticizes him for not carrying his weight when it comes to chores, everyone (including Call) loves him. This is how he has organized and prioritized his life. It mostly works out—but some of the women in the story (who are all wonderfully drawn by McMurtry) see through his act. You can’t just be a romantic player; you’ve got to commit.

In contrast Call’s highest priority is to duty, Getting Things Done. Living by a code. You promise to do something, you do it. This makes him admirable, a born leader, but like Gus he’s also flawed. I found myself identifying with Call, more than I suspected. I’m nothing at all like him—dude is an old school Texas Ranger you don’t want to cross, self-sufficient alpha to the core. But, he cannot form personal connections; he can’t show love to his son, form meaningful relationships with women, or even admit the boy Newt is his own blood. Toward the end of the novel in a shocking scene he gets his shit called out, and has no rejoinder. In a flash he wonders if he’s been living his life wrong, all along. The gulfs between men and women are wide. Most everyone in this book is quite lonely, even in the company of others.

I’m not this emotionally stunted. But, I’m introverted, I don’t form true, deep friendships/relationships easily or lightly, and this has occasionally bitten me in the ass. I found myself understanding Call on a deep level, because I have some of him in me.

The book is also about virtue, what makes men virtuous and what makes them fall short. The handsome cowboy Jake Spoon—dreamy brown eyes, natural charisma, always gets the girl—is not an irredeemable bastard, but he’s not a man worthy of our respect, because he doesn’t value helping other people, nor duty or obligation, but ultimately his top priority is his own self-interest. Gambling. Drinking. Woman chasing. He’s also a relative coward. This all comes back to bite him, hard. 

We need something to follow, some North star, that’s not just us. You better find it, or life will lead you to bad places.

Lonesome Dove does not romanticize the old west. It’s funny in places, touching, even uplifting, but also grim. Death comes easy, and unfairly, to several characters. Despite its hardness, it’s hard to leave behind. You want to keep inhabiting this world.

But now it’s time to say goodbye to the novel. Perhaps I’ll watch the television miniseries.


Matthew said...

Lonesome Dove is probably the most LOVED western. (Blood Meridian is the most Respected.)

I too had trouble getting into it, but once I did I was really into it.

It's been said that Gus represents Epicurianism and Call Stoicism. However, each has there contradictions which is what makes them interesting.

Narmer said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the rest of it. I think it's time for a re-read. And do give the mini-series a try.

I unfortunately haven't been able to read Cormac McCarthy's stuff because of the way it's published.

Deuce said...

A fine novel!

McMurtry, like most right-thinking people, is known to have enjoyed REH and ERB.

Brian Murphy said...

I had no idea McMurtry read REH and ERB ... pretty awesome. One can only imagine what a McMurtry S&S novel would have read like, or one set on Mars rather than Texas.

Narmer: Not sure what you mean about McCarthy. Do you mean how it's physically published, or is there something about his style that turns you off?

Matthew: Interesting re., his use of archetypes.

Anonymous said...

What is REH and ERB?

Narmer said...

It is probably a problem particular to me but the lack of quotation marks and dialog tags makes it very difficult for me to read his books and understand them fully.

Narmer said...

Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Gonzalo B said...

I recently visited a bookstore in Pittsburgh and they had a huge collection of Italian comic books that had belonged to Larry McMurtry. McMurtry was a well-read man with many interests so I don't doubt he read and likely enjoyed REH. He has a very interesting (and short and a quick read) memoir about his years as a bookseller titled Books: A Memoir.

Alex Beecher said...

I have an underdeveloped thesis that, for all of the overtures made towards Martin, Jordan, et al, a true “American Tolkien” would actually have to be found in westerns, the quintessential wellspring of American mythology, rather than the pseudo-European template, and the quest of course must be a cattle drive. It’s a silly pointless title that McMurty wouldn’t want anyway, but I think it’s an interesting frame through which to view his work.

Brian Murphy said...

Alex: That is pretty brilliant, actually. The frontier and "the west" are of course our heritage and shrouded in myth. Love it.