I should admit I was a bit skeptical when my book group decided to read Larry McMurtry’s western novel Lonesome Dove. I’ve never been interested in historical western fiction, although I have some fond memories of looking at the stacks and stacks of Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey paperbacks in my grandfather’s house when I was a teenager. He piled them everywhere – on the radiators, on the armrests of his couches, on the windowsills. He loved this type of fiction. But I never tried it. Whenever I would go and stay with him, I always had my own stack of books and never went further than glancing with amusement at the gaudy covers of his. I wonder now what I might have been missing.
Lonesome Dove is an epic novel. It covers thousands of miles and nearly a year in the life of its characters, along with heavy back story for many of them. Aside from a selection of main characters, there are also dozens of minor characters to keep straight as well as an endless parade of small western towns and landscapes. Despite the breadth of the novel, it has a single, fundamental quest at its heart – one man’s desire to move from Texas and settle as a cattle rancher in Montana.
The book moves quickly from one extraordinary adventure to the next – fights, love stories, death, the trials of cowboy life. There is a healthy dose of violence, but also quite a bit of humor. The book has plenty of action and plot-driven momentum, but I was considerably impressed with McMurtry’s rendering of each character. And in particular Gus and Call, the novel’s main heroes.
Woodrow Call is the man behind the great cattle drive and an inscrutable figure. He lives for work, keeps himself apart from the men he leads and is rigidly honest in his dealings with both friends and enemies. His downfall, which the novel reveals slowly, is an inability to accept weakness in himself. I really enjoyed reading how McMurtry explored this idea.
Gus is the perfect foil for Call, a bon vivant with a sly sense of humor and a heart of gold. He is a tough character, but utterly devoted to the people he loves. His friendship with Call is one of the more interesting parts of the book. The two men are such opposites, yet wonderful complements. Gus pushes Call to admit his failures, with little success, and Call questions Gus’ choices and behaviors.
There isn’t a great, hidden meaning to this book. Nor is there space to get lost in the writing. It is what it is. But it does provide a fascinating portrait of 1800’s America, with its violence and peculiar worldview. McMurtry includes examples of everyone and everything: cowboys, immigrants, whores, settlers, criminals, lawmen and soldiers, poor people, women, ordinary men. Sadly, most of the characters he introduces the reader to eventually die somewhere later in the story. But it’s a testament to his skill as a writer that each time, no matter how minor the character, it was difficult not to truly mourn their loss.