Friday, May 27, 2011

Lonesome Dove (1985)

Genre: Literature & Fiction
Author:Larry McMurtry
"If you read only one western novel in your life, read Lonesome Dove."
-- USA Today

The above blurb is misleading. "Lonesome Dove" is a terrific novel that happens to be about a section of the history of the American West than some kind of genre work. It reminds me of the joke Woody Allen once wrote about having just finished reading "War and Peace" and "It appears to be about Russia."

No one novel could possibly sum up the Western/Manifest Destiny experience, not even this 850-page Victorian door-stopper of a novel.

A couple other McMurtry novels--the more recent and more comic "Telegraph Days" and some of his non-fiction works convinced me the time invested in a book like this would be worth it, and it was.

The book centers around the relationship between two retired ex-Texas Ranger lawmen around 1877-1880. Captain W.F. Call is a natural leader of men who is the driving force behind the Hat Creek Ranch along the Rio Grande in Texas. He sells horses to folks wandering in the small settlement that boasts little more than a few houses, a blacksmith shop, a saloon and a "sporting woman" named Lorena who provides special services for the cowboys, several of the younger ones being secretly in love with her.

Call's partner, Augustus "Gus" McCall, is a more book-read, talkative person but just as tough when the chips are down. Each man has faced long odds in dealing in their past career with desperate outlaws, angry Comanches, and Mexican cattle rustlers in their time as Rangers. One day an old comrade from the Rangers named Jake Spoon rides into the little dusty hovel and starts talking up the virtues of pulling off a 1,500 mile cattle drive up to Montana. The territory there is wide-open and cattle much needed, if only some could steal enough cattle from the Mexican cattle barons (without being shot of hanged) and get them up there.

Spoon himself is more interested in gambling and womanizing than he is serious about going to Montana but Captain Call and Gus decide they want to round up some horses and cows and their small band of Hat Creek cowpunchers (with names like Deets, Dish, and Pea Eye) go forth on the grueling frontier Odyssey. Gus wants to see Montana "before the bankers and the lawyers get ahold of it."

What follows after this set-up is a grueling and near-sleepless trek across a landscape of human lawlessness (horse thieves, gangs of killers, settlers none too happy to see cattlemen ruin their crops, Native American fighters who haven't forgotten this is their land, etc.).

For natural "diversions" there are fatal diseases like cholera, dangerous swollen rivers that must be crossed, vast plains that are little more than deserts, outbreaks of brutal heat and cold and incessant assaults by everything from swarms of grasshoppers to the bitter snow that greets the survivors as they cross the Yellowstone River to Montana, etc.

And if that weren't enough, Army officers and their cavalry units are liable to come by and try to appropriate the horses of the cattlemen for use in fighting the latest band of "Indian hostiles".

It's been estimated that the cattle drives of the 1860-1880's from Texas up to wide-open towns like Dodge City and Abilene, Kansas, were so tough on men already tough that little more than a third who survived the trek ever made a second journey.

Most of the cowboys were lowly-paid and many were ex-Confederate soldiers who met up with ex-Union soldiers turned lawmen and business-owners. The results often led to gun-play when present animosity among the groups reignited old and bloody grudges. Neither side had forgotten.

The novel itself has scenes that resonate--Augustus meeting his old flame (and ex-prostitute) Clara after she has married and is running a farm and horse ranch practically by herself; Newt (the youngest of the cowboys) coming of age in a hostile environment; Jake Spoon falling in with a group of horse thieves after he leaves his lover Lorena--who wants him and her to start a new life in San Francisco--and paying the price for keeping bad company, etc. The savage half-Comanche Blue Duck, a natural-born killer who seems to personify the unforgiving nature of this trek into a hell on earth, is particularly memorable.

McMurtry himself calls this work "a poor man's {Dante's} 'Inferno'' and admits in a later edition of the book to being surprised that, although he thought he delivered an story "filled with violence, faithlessness and betrayal" readers (and viewers of the popular 1989 six hour mini-series) saw the work as "a kind of 'Gone With the Wind' of the West, a turnabout I'll be mulling over for a long,long time".

I personally found little of what modern readers would call romance in the story. It's more Cormac McCarthy's "Blood Meridian" to me than anything to get all wistful and nostalgic about, as some people do when they get a glimpse of the 'taming of the West." This is a book of hard truths leavened with some humor. Without the character and wry observation of Gus Mc Rae I doubt many people would finish the book that have. But it is a testament to what a writer who knows his business can do with a setting like this--breathe life into a genre like the Old West, "the phantom leg of the American psyche" and not get either sentimental nor post-modern judgemental about the place that once (and somehow still is) the United States.


  1. a true blast of reality from the olden days

  2. This was a great book. Admittedly, it was my love of the mini-series that drove me to find it, but it truly is great. It is definitely darker than "Gone with the Wind", but has more humanity to it than "Blood Meridian". Like you say, without Gus McCrae's commentary really balances the unrelenting of the grimy realism McMurtry presents.

    I still remember the river fording scene and the sheer terror such a seemingly simple undertaking instilled. That and experiencing hellacious thunderstorms on the open plains--especially having experienced the terror of such storms in a nice safe house.

  3. I missed the mini-series when it came out, Shedrick, and i thought I'd read the book before renting it to watch. Now that my procrastination is at an end, am looking forward to watching the award-winning tele-series.

    Yes, "Blood Meridian" was a lot darker. That was a tough one even to finish.

    Thank goodness for the laughs and off-hand "philosophy" Gus provides. I think James Garner would have been perfect as Augustus, he has that knack, but I'm sure Robert Duvall does his usual great job.

    Yes, McMurtry brings the river-fording and all those scenes of ominous figures coming to camp in the darkness to all their dangerous life. And, yes, I forgot to mention those thunderstorms! Life in the Midwestern plains is not for sissies in any case, but to be a real cowboy, out in the wide open under natures fury with nowhere to go but under a grimy slicker gives one an appreciation for modern life.

  4. I really did love the mini-series. It was very well done

  5. I look forward to seeing it, especially without the commercials.

  6. I love watching tv without the commercials.

  7. I have foundd that once you get hooked on DVDs and VHS recordings, it's hard to go back to the old way, unless its a sports event you're into.

  8. I have found, Fred, that once you get hooked on DVDs and VHS recordings, it's hard to go back to the old way, unless its a sports event you're into.

  9. DVR is also a great thing! Pushing through commercials is wonderful. Marianne has also become addicted ti Netflix. She has been watching old series commercial free.

  10. Yes, Shirley and I do the same thing--the pacing of a good show improves drastically when you don't have to wade through the ads. "Hulu Plus" is another alternative but I've not gone there yet. Since they closed the local Blockbuster rental store here, Netflix seems to be our best alternative.

  11. Thanks for this review of a book I have never come across, although from its size it sounds like a major commitment and so I would need a good reason to tackle it.
    Your review achieved that Doug.
    I grew up on American self discovery literature from Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs and Ken Kesey to Steinbeck ,Woody Guthrie and Carlos Casteneda.... so I think I get the windswept feel your review conjures up here, for me at least.

    It is interesting that this period of the history of the western United States is frequently hoisted on its own petard, in that the cowboy mythology it trades upon by virtue of the very industry constructed to mythologise it,movies and novels.... means the 'wild west' genre has become the epitome of pulp fiction and to some degree spoiled goods I think.

    Your description of a novel set in the period but is not of that western genre reminds me of the so called spaghetti westerns and their existential view of colonialism and the anarchy of the great land grab that is the story of those bygone times.

    From your description I get the feel of McCabe and Mrs Miller, the muddy brothel, the kind hearted prostitutes in splashed skirts slipping in huge puddles, the wild boys emboldened by fire water looking for adventure and the flash point violence of no law except gun law, where the saloon and a good Christian burial are apparently the only benchmarks to hang an otherwise chaotic and precarious existence upon.

    It seems to me that it is the things that American culture prizes most highly that are the very same things that the rest of the world fears the most.... that includes the anarchic freedom that both fatally attracts and utterly repels risk averse polite society generally.

    I am not convinced I would have seen the nuances you describe Doug and therefore I am grateful for the perspective you give to this book and as a result, I am far less likely to pass it by now than I would have been, had I encountered it in a bookshop and dismissed it as just another cowboy story.

    So thanks for that Doug, an interesting slant on manifest destiny with mud on its petticoat I think!

  12. Thanks for that further exposition of the cowboy genre, it is interesting what you say about the link between the beats and the frontiersmen and High Plains Drifters of an earlier age. I can certainly see connections between the anarchic 'beat' antihero and the Clint Eastwood character, especially in William Burroughs full frontal attack on bourgeois morality.

    Burroughs was a real life Drifter (in the Inter-zone) who even shot his wife to add weight to the credibility of that role of the amoral and alienated 'bug powder' bard.

    Your potted history of the role of the western in American popular culture gives shape to the way all this spread out not only across the Anglosphere, but across the whole world making the cowboy the first global hero of the electronic age.

    The reabsorbtion of the mythology I think means the imagery is deeply ingrained in the American self definition and the evolution of a national identity of the United States.

    It could be argued if we go back a little further that the 'cowboy' is a universal archetype characterised in such examples Odysseus from a time when the 'wild west' was perceived in all directions surrounding the Classical World of Mediterranean civilisation.

    In European literature and culture initially Beowulf but then the knight (especially the crusader) the pirate and the explorer all have similar roles I think, all liminal figures pushing the boundaries of the cultures that begot them, but never quite socialised them.

    In the east maybe the shogun type character had a similar role, self defining power and morality, both liberating and intimidating, the best and the worst of our hopes and fears?

    In English mythology Robin Hood and Hereward the Wake are early examples of the 'cowboy' type character, but the role reversal between good and bad that they represent actually had a cultural expression in the Roman festival of Saturnalia which operated as a social 'safety valve' in the temporary reversal of the social order.

    It seems to me that the 'western' has had a similarly cathartic effect upon the 20th century American psyche, but it has also blurred boundaries between the 'good' and the 'bad' and may have become as much of a burden as it is a benefit in an age of universal images?

    All good stuff to wake up to Doug, thanks for your comprehensive reply to my initial comment.

  13. I agree fully that you could find the "cowboy" or "the white man who knows Indians", "good gunman", et al, character in a more expansive view of European and other literatures.

    It never occured to me until you brought it up that "Beowulf", to cite on example, has the same elements as Western, but indeed it does! Remembering a modern translation of that work from a night class I took a while back, yours was a reference I wished I had brought up.

    It's true that the classic cowboy image, like Beowulf and Wiglaf of that Germanic/Old English saga or the Greek heroes of Homer, they are of men never quite socialized although they bring this to others.

    These men ride away from the little civilized oasis in a brutal landscape, to continue wandering as Eastwood's character so often did, or to die in some struggle. And certainly this has echoes in the tales of the "masterless" Samurai in Akira Kurosawa's epics, fighting their last battles, or the various Robin Hoods on film and television. The all had their mini-crusades to restore an Eden that likely never existed. And they might be good or have dark edges to their psyches. Certainly Burroughs' act of violence and his reputation as a scorched- earth anti-establishment writer fits the mold of underlying violence and chaos in our modern American culture. The echoes are clear in the 'antihero' we see more plainly in an Eastwood or Peckinpah Western, where being adept with a firearm decides who "plays the tune" and who dances in a town beyond The Pale.

    Thanks for adding a lot to this discussion, AA.