The Great Novels, vol. 1: Lonesome Dove
I am an avid reader. But I am also a re-reader. I have gone back to my favorite books many, many times and I always get a kick out of them. It’s like reuniting with an old familiar friend. A great book can give you such a thrill when you read it for the first time. But the really great ones on repeated readings give you chills at how good they are even though there are no surprises waiting for you. Often this is because of wonderful, fully drawn characters. And that brings us to Lonesome Dove.
The first thing I tell people when I recommend Lonesome Dove is that I don’t really care for Westerns very much. In fact, until I read Lonesome Dove, I would say that I didn’t care for them at all. Aside from the occasional Western movie that held my interest, I never found them compelling or found the settings of Westerns very interesting. Often times, it seemed like a Western was just a story that could have been told in any setting. After all, The Magnificent Seven is just an inferior remake of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, and that story is much more compelling given the Japanese setting and the code of the Samurai. Enter Larry McMurtry and his wonderful novel, which was originally written as a teleplay. That it ultimately became a much-loved television miniseries after he decided to turn the teleplay into a novel is one of those great ironies. McMurty actually won the Pulitzer Prize for Lonesome Dove, and brother did he earn it.
The basic story is a simple one. Augustus “Gus” McCrae and Captain Woodrow Call are former Texas Rangers, past their prime and making a hard, honest living as cattlemen in Texas near the Mexican border. Gus is about as lazy as they come, but he has an easy manner about him that makes him instantly likable. While Gus spend his days drinking, gambling and whoring, Call is a tireless worker (and taskmaster), a no-nonsense fellow that demands respect from friend and foe alike. When their old Ranger buddy Jake Spoon rides into town and starts talking about the beautiful state of Montana, Gus and Call decide to pack up and drive their herd there. Gus is less than enthusiastic, but Call is not one easily swayed and before you know it, they are on their way.
The amazing thing about Lonesome Dove is the sheer number of characters, all of which are memorable. While Gus and Call are the main story, the novel follows other people as well, giving them tremendous lives and stories of their own. This is truly an ensemble piece. When the story heads off in the direction of another character, you find yourself wishing it would stay with the character you just read about. Yet when the story shifts again, you wish it would stay on the new character you just met. It’s really something to behold and it speaks volumes about McMurtry’s ability to create such vivid characters. Also of note is that there are very few inner dialogues that take place. Each character is defined by their words and their actions, not by long interludes of what is going through their mind. You become amazed at how well you get to know these people. When tragedies occur (and believe me, they do), you feel a real sense of loss. You realize that the west was a brutal place that took no sides; both good and bad suffered and often died as a matter of routine. McMurtry takes that western setting and make it come alive.
While every single story in Lonesome Dove is absorbing, I have a special place in my heart for Gus McRae. He’s a man’s man, who lives by a very real code all his own. He does things that will baffle you, infuriate you and amaze you. In all my years of reading, Gus McRae is my favorite fictional character. He’s simply unforgettable.
So don’t be scared if Westerns are not your thing. They’re not really mine, either, or at least I sure thought that before I read Lonesome Dove. If you love epic storytelling and thoroughly memorable characters, saddle up and head to the library or local bookstore. Pick up Lonesome Dove and get ready for a remarkable read.
P.S. – Lonesome Dove spawned a sequel and two prequels. The sequel, Streets Of Laredo, is a solid, melancholy story that picks up a while after the events of Lonesome Dove. I’d give it a solid B as a grade. The first prequel, Dead Man’s Walk, tells the story of how Gus and Call ended up in the Rangers and made enemies of the great Indian Buffalo Hump. Sadly, this book does not deliver what you would expect from McMurtry. The Gus and Call characters are basically oafs who rely on good fortune to stay alive. I’d score it a C-. The second sequel, Comanche Moon, picks up after the events of Dead Man’s Walk and before Lonesome Dove. It finds McMurtry back in fine form. It’s good enough to stand on it’s own as an excellent tale. I give it an A-. Lonesome Dove is probably my favorite book, and I consider it to be the best novel I have read. It rates an A+.