Eleven thoughts on Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove

Last month I read Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove for the first time, and it was even better than advertised. I have some thoughts, mostly on what makes it so good, as well as the underlying themes that (perhaps?) have been overlooked given the book's popularity, Pulitzer Prize, and adaptation into a TV miniseries.

1.  The prose is perfect. Perfect. Not perfect the way, say, Michael Chabon's is. There may not be a word in all the nearly-1,000 pages that rises above an eighth grade reading level. The sentences, moreover, are usually on the short side. The prose isn't complex. But it's pitch perfect. McMurtry never fails to communicate exactly what he intends, whether it be an action, a feeling, a thought, or a memory. Or a conversation. Oh my, the dialogue. I felt what all readers have felt reading this novel: I didn't want it to end. Like watching a sitcom for a decade, I just wanted to spend time with my friends. But anyway, reading McMurtry's prose was a delight. The way he uses euphemism and "native" construction—the way an uneducated twentysomething cowboy would think or talk—both in dialogue and in description of action or emotion from a character's perspective: it's nothing short of masterful.

2. The characters! Gus, Call, Lorena, Dish, Pea Eye, Deets, Clara—Clara!—Lippy, Newt, Wanz, Blue Duck, July Johnson, Roscoe, Po Campo, Elmira, Peach, Big Zwey, Wilbarger, Jake Spoon—oh, Jake Spoon—Cholo, Soupy, Bolivar. Each name calls forth a whole world, a flesh-and-blood person, a voice and a story and an inner dialogue. Waiting to have July open part 2 and then Clara open part 3, the latter two-thirds into the story, and for each of them to step onto the page fully-formed and wholly equal to those we'd met long before: it's invigorating, is what it is. Exhilirating for the reader. Because at that point you just don't know who might show up before long.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry3. The plot is elegant in its simplicity and beautiful in its execution. An 1880 cattle drive from the Rio Grande to Montana, from the southern border to the northern (somewhere between the Rivers Milk and Missouri), led by two famous Texas Rangers in their 50s, after all the battles have been won and the land "secured" for settlement. A journey from vista to vista that live on in the American mythos. A tale filled with outsize characters and shocking events, combined with the ordinary quirks and peccadilloes of human life anywhere: back-breaking labor, bitter weather, taming the elements and animal passions in tandem, ubiquitous prostitution, city life and wilderness within walking distance, penury and plenty even closer bedfellows, unclaimed bastards and long-lost loves, abrupt deaths and children orphaned, gallows humor and gambling and ghost stories and other ways to kill the time on the short way to the grave.

4. That leads me to what most surprised me about the novel (spoilers hereon). This is a dark story lightly told. And I cannot decide whether that is a virtue or a vice (it's certainly a feature and not a bug). The tone floats upon the surface of the pages, flitting from a Gus monologue to a light-hearted memory to a gripping set piece without pausing for Existential Comment or Thematic Flag-Planting. And that, I think, is why the book (appears to me, at least) to be remembered for the joy and pleasure of the plot and the characters and the dialogue. That was certainly my experience of the first half or so. But make no mistake. This is not a comedy. It is a tragedy.

By story's end, random minor characters have died to no purpose; Jake Spoon, fallen into mindless self-justifying murder, is captured and hanged by his friends before killing himself; July's wife, who never loved him and despises him, runs off to find another man, "marries" a third and is killed by Sioux; July's stepson and best friend together with a runaway, abused little girl are brutally murdered by Blue Duck; Deets is killed by a confused and overwhelmed young Indian boy for no reason; Clara is living alone on hard plains land, with a dying husband and three dead sons in the ground; Lorena has her dreams of San Francisco dashed by being kidnapped and gang-raped by Blue Duck's crew before being rescued by Gus, only to find herself at Clara's, alone in her grief mourning Gus (perhaps losing her mind in the process); Gus himself dies randomly as a result of an accidental run-in with Blackfeet who probably would have meant him no harm if they'd met otherwise. In fact, like Jake Gus chooses to die in a fit of vanity, preferring loss of life to life without legs, thus leaving both Clara and Lorena bereft of his presence and his love. Even Wanz burns himself alive in the saloon that just wasn't the same without Lorena there.

That's only to mention the deaths. Call's bastard son by a prostitute (herself dead) lives in his shadow for two decades, only to learn from others that Call is his father; yet Call cannot bring himself to tell the boy or give him his name, and abandons him in Montana: unclaimed, unnamed, unloved, alone. Call keeps his promise to his dead friend, eventuating with him—alone—back in Lonesome Dove, without meaning or purpose or drive. Why did he take all those cattle and all those men to Montana, and tolerate all those deaths in the process, anyway? Because Jake Spoon made mention of wide green pastures? So what? Or what of Dish, love-sick for Lorena, and July, love-sick for any woman in his orbit (Ellie, Clara, ad infinitum), both too naive and foolish and earnest ever to have their love requited. Even poor Bolivar regrets leaving the outfit and joining his wife south of the border, a house empty of his beloved daughters, home only to a woman who despises him.

Not one person in the whole book proves happy by the end; not one gets what he's looking for; not one finds lasting love or satisfaction. Even Pea Eye, the least unhappy and lonesome character in the story, precisely because he asks little of life except not getting murdered in his sleep, is bewildered and set adrift by Gus's death and Call's actions toward Newt. Never one for words, he is silenced one last time.

Lonesome Dove, in short, is a desperately sad tale. It is bleak, violent, unsparing, even merciless in the fates it doles out to its characters. And yet, for probably 600 or 700 pages, that is not the way the book reads. It reads like a romp, full of color and life and simple joys and little silly detours that make you cackle with glee. It's a book to make you smile, until you don't—because you're crying, or in shock.

Is that just the way McMurtry writes? Or is it a stylistic Trojan horse—slipping in a bleak revisionist Western tragedy in the trappings of a happy well-worn genre? I'm inclined to believe it's the latter, but I confess I don't know enough to form a judgment. I'll have to do some more reading of the book's reception and interpretation to tell.

5. The book is full of provocative themes. One of the biggest is the randomness of life. That Call or Gus lived through the battles of the '40s, '50s, and '60s is sheer luck: the bounce of a rock, a horse's ill-considered step, a bullet's trajectory infinitesimally altered—they're dead, and not the living heroes they find themselves to be as aging men in the '70s. That July Johnson gets mixed up in the Hat Creek's affairs, that Jake Spoon whispers a dream of Montana to Call, is owed to nothing so meaningful as a stray bullet in Fort Smith, Arkansas. All is arbitrary, the luck of the draw. Whether some men are lucky or we merely call men lucky who live in the absence of bad luck, it's chance all the way down either way.

6. If life is random, it's also without intrinsic purpose. What meaning one's life has is mostly a matter of the meaning one assigns to it or discovers in it. Call's nature is to work, and so work he does. When the drive to work leaves him, however, he is listless, lethargic, confused. Why, again, drive cattle north, risking danger to life and limb? Why, for that matter, hang Mexican horsethieves all the while crossing the Rio Grande to steal horses from Mexican rancheros? Why pursue and clear out and kill Indians? Gus asks these questions aloud. Call dismisses them as so much nonsense. But when the question presents itself to him once all is said and done, he has no answer, for there is no answer.

7. Are Gus and Call "good men"? We readers are disposed to think so. Because we grow to love them, our affection tells us they are admirable and virtuous. Are they, though? Call is an unreflective taskmaster, and though he is a gifted leader of men, he acts for no clear higher purpose, and is quite literally possessed by violence when provoked. Gus, for his part, is larger than life, funny, clear-headed, philosophical, lettered, skilled, and wholly undetermined by others' opinions or desires. Then again, he spends most of his time doing nothing; and when not doing nothing, he is gambling, eating voraciously, busting balls, or paying a woman for sex. He openly questions whether the work of a Texas Ranger is just, and does it anyway. Would we call such a person a "good man" in real life?

8. To be sure, the novel does not "need" Gus and Call to be "good men." I imagine lovers of the novel think they are, though, and would defend the claim with feeling. Such a claim is found in one of the blurbs in my copy of the book. But I have to think McMurtry, even apart from the aim of rendering believable and interesting characters with detail and affection, intends this, too, as a kind of Trojan horse. We want to believe Gus and Call are good men because they appear to fulfill the role. But our love for them and our wanting to be in their company blinds us to a true estimation of their character. And McMurtry wants us to see, on the one hand, the emptiness of our approbation of our ancestors; and, on the other, the vacuity of any such estimation at all.

9. What McMurtry so accurately captures in this novel is the sheer givenness and there-ness of life in all its passivity and activity. The characters in Lonesome Dove rarely do things with foresight or reflection. They do them because they are the sort of things one does in their shoes. You rope the bull or drive the cattle or steal the horses or hang the thief or chase the bandits or pay the prostitute or cross the river or give or obey orders because that's just the thing to be done, the thing all of us do, here and now, in these circumstances (and not others), as the persons we are (and not others). Biases and prejudices here are not rendered in world-historical or structural terms. They're inherited, rarely thought of, and only slightly less rarely acted upon. One simply lives, typically a short while, and dies. What action occurs in between is mostly stumbled into.

10. McMurtry, though his two main female characters (Lorena and Clara) are exquisitely drawn, excels in depicting masculinity. The men of the Hat Creek outfit act exactly as men do in such conditions. The moodiness and boredom and in-fighting, the ball-busting and petty quarrels and venting of pent-up frustration, the paralyzing fear and loneliness that grips them all to one degree or another: it is as true to life as any narrative description of men in close community together as any I have ever read.

11. Perhaps my only real criticism of the book is the almost complete absence of religious matters. By this I don't mean that the novel should be theological in outlook (the way, for example, that Blood Meridian drips theological significance off every page). Nor do I mean that a character should have stood in for the Good Christian, or some such thing. What I mean is that mid-19th century Texas was a land saturated in settler-colonial European-cultural Christianity. If you were a white person in the continental United States (prior to their being United States), you belonged to a civilization that claimed the Bible and Jesus and God and Christian faith as a birthright. Even if, sometimes especially if, you were untutored and unpracticed in such faith, you talked as if you were. The vernacular was marinated in it.

And oddly, McMurtry almost never adverts to such vernacular. The boys of Hat Creek don't wonder around the campfire where they go when they die. There's no fierce defender of the name of Jesus Christ against casual sacrilege. There's no Christian burial (except for a briefly mentioned one right at the end). There's no begging Jesus for mercy with a gunshot wound in the gut. There's basically nothing of the sort. There's not even God-salted or Scripture-ornamented speech. And that seems to me a shocking historical oversight. Everything else in the novel rings true. But not this. McMurtry could well have offered his tragic vision of the old West, with no heroes or only heroes compromised by violence and vanity, a vision untainted by transcendent virtue, and yet one pockmarked by a thousand imperfect encounters with the texts and names and stories and concepts of the Christian religion. I have to think he left it out by intention, and that that intention was to give us an unfamiliar, desacralized West, godless and faithless. But the wiser course by far (as, again, the example of Cormac McCarthy attests) would be to leave the religious in, as nothing but empty ornamentation and self-aggrandizing consecration of the otherwise amoral or evil.

Had McMurtry gone that way, I might call Lonesome Dove a flawless novel. Even as it stands, I'm inclined to think it may well still be perfect.


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