Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #83: Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
I fell into Lonesome Dove when my book club facilitator chose it as our next discussion choice. The size of the book didn’t faze me but the subject—an honest-to-God cowboys-and-Indians western—sure did! Hardly my idea of great literature. I somewhat reluctantly picked it up, mindful of the huge stack of other books waiting at my bedside. To my surprise and delight, the story was captivating, the characters complex, and the scenery descriptions awesome. McMurty’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has it all—the lonesome cowboy, the whore with the heart of gold, the surly Mexican cook, the big bad Indian—and yet despite the clichés, McMurty manages to inject enough genuine humanity into his book to speak compellingly to readers of a different era.
Former Texas Ranger legends Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call are getting on in years, and the Texas bandits and Indians they fought for decades are pretty much a memory. They have set up a horse-trading operation in the tiny town of Lonesome Dove, where the only entertainment is the bar above which the pretty but infinitely sad Lorie plies her trade and dreams of escape to San Francisco. Newt is the 16-year-old son of Lorie’s predecessor Maggie, who died of a broken heart after Call briefly indulged his human side just long enough to get her pregnant and then decided he couldn’t handle the messiness of human relations and retreated back into his workaholic shell. After Maggie’s death, Newt was taken in and raised by Call and Gus, but he suspects that his father might be the carefree Jake Spoon, another Texas Ranger who had a fling with Maggie and then left town to follow his hard drinking and gambling heart. At the start of the novel, Jake returns to Lonesome Dove after being gone more than a decade, fleeing the law after having “accidentally” killed a guy in Arkansas. His lighthearted affair with Lorie melts her lonely heart and she cleaves to him as her chance to get away from her miserable existence, but as Gus puts it, Jake is looking for someone to take care of him, not the other way around.
Jake’s mention of the open grassy plains of Montana somehow triggers a thirst in Call for one last great adventure, and he convinces Gus to put together a herd they will drive some 3,000 miles to the north. For Call, it is an unformed—and uninformed–urge for change, but for Gus, it’s a chance to see his old flame Clara, whose ranch is somewhere along the route. The constant banter between Call and McCrae—total opposites in character and yet profoundly dependent on each other—makes up the core of the book, while the constant tragedy and hardscrabble existence of early American western life is the backdrop.
I found the book a great deal of fun, but also unexpectedly poignant. Not great literature, but a delightful read nonetheless.