Saturday, March 23, 2013
Review: Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
Tags: American lit, Western, Wild West, cowboys, Pulitzer Prize
In the relatively calm years after the Civil War, two former Texas Rangers, Augustus McCrae and Captain Woodrow Call, grow restless with their uneventful life in Lonesome Dove, Texas, where the most exciting things that happen are their occasional runs into Mexico to re-steal the cattle and horses that the Mexicans had stolen from Texas. When their former mate, Jake Spoon, returns with tales of how open and rich the Montana plains are, Call decides to round up a gang of cowboys and cattle and set up a cattle ranch there. But the trail north is long and hard, and there will be lots of heartaches and surprises for everyone before they even make it halfway there.
I’m not sure I can pull my thoughts and emotions together to write a full-fledged review for this book. LONESOME DOVE came onto my radar because it is one of my colleagues’ favorite books ever. He recommends it to every one of our students, he donated two copies to my company’s library, he borrows those very two copies that he donated every few months to pass around to friends. Finally I happened upon an ex-library copy at a book sale and decided that it’d probably be worth at least two dollars to check it out. I wasn’t expecting the invaluable find of one of the best books I’ve ever read, a stunning achievement of characterization set in the Old Wild West.
LONESOME DOVE’s strength lies in how effortlessly Larry McMurtry conjures up a varied cast of characters. Easily a dozen characters take turns narrating over 900+ pages, and some of these characters really pissed me off with how slow/idiotic/selfish they acted. And I loved all the emotions that McMurtry was able to stir up in me. Spending time with childish Jake Spoon, depressed and selfish Elmira, damaged Lorena, and others made me realize how little I read from the points of view of characters I don’t like, and how valuable it can be.
Oh, don’t worry: there aren’t only despicable characters in this book. But no one is perfect, and there’s not necessarily one protagonist to cheer on the whole way through. McMurtry breaks your heart by letting bad things befall good characters, or not letting bad characters receive their comeuppance. In the end, however, you understand why people are willing to follow Gus and Call in their endeavors: the two of them, so different in personality, are impressive leaders in action.
Most of us have seen a scene or two of the Wild Wild West, but Larry McMurtry really makes readers live it. McMurtry’s Old Wild West’s main feature is the variety of rough characters one comes across on the road or in saloons, whores and gamblers and trigger-happy cowboys. A writer can write as much as he or she wants on the setting, but it is the people in LONESOME DOVE that really make you feel the dust between your teeth, snowblindness in your eyes, wet boots and socks through powerful Midwestern storms.
The characterization in LONESOME DOVE is so strong that I’m almost reluctant to say anything critical about the book, because I can forgive just about everything in light of such splendid characterization. But if I had to make criticisms about the book, two things come to mind. The more minor one is how incomplete the ending felt. It seemed almost like McMurtry was writing along, and then, around the 900-page mark, got bored with his story, while at the same time also realizing how successful it could be, and thus raced through the end, slapped on a few satisfying conclusions but also left a lot of things frustratingly open for a sequel.
A more major concern I had was its treatment of POC characters. All the American Indians that appear in this book are heartless, cold-blooded murderers; Deets, the sole black man of the Lonesome Dove outfit, is wise, knowledgeable, and dutiful, one-with-the-earth in a prophetic way. I get it that the nineteenth-century American West was not the most non-racist period in American history, and while I felt that the characters behaved synchronously with their time, I was disappointed that a twentieth-century author couldn’t do better than rely on stereotypes for creating his POC characters.
Despite those quibbles, however, I still wholeheartedly recommend this book. LONESOME DOVE is an epic read that will easily be, if not the greatest book you’ve ever read in your life, then at least the best Western you’ll ever read in your life.
Cover discussion: Does it matter? It could have the worst cover ever and I'd still buy a copy for every bookworm I like.
Simon & Schuster / June 15, 2010 (reprint) / Paperback / 864pp. / $18.00
Personal copy, heyyooo.