Lonesome Dove  by Larry McMurtry

The tag-line on the cover of this book reads, An epic journey that will change their lives forever… The story does indeed chart an epic journey. This is an epic book.

Larry McMurtry’s novel won him a Pulitzer, and I can understand why. Lonesome Dove is a classic in the truest sense. It grabs you by the scuffed collar and drags you all-too-willingly across the wildest parts of the Wild West at a frantic yet thoughtful pace.

Augustus McCrae and Woodrow F. Call are renowned former Texas Rangers who fought many battles along the Rio Grande where they encountered Mexican bandits and First Nations warriors. Both have become partners in a livestock business. Yet Augustus, or Gus to all, has little interest in such labours, preferring to sit in the shade drinking moonshine and appreciating the stark beauty of the rugged Texas borderlands. Call, however, has no time for daydreams and is a man of intense action. They make a strange but plausible pair.

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Things change dramatically when Call decides that both men have remained in the one place for too long, and determines that they will start out upon a massive cattle drive to Montana where there is untouched pasture and free land waiting for intrepid ranchers to claim. Of course we have to conveniently forget that the First Nation people own said land and may be just a tad miffed that white colonizers are intent on stealing it from them, but hey, why allow such trivial matters to destroy the legend.

The pair recruit a motley band of cowboys and non-cowboys to work the drive. We meet the sensitive and eminently likeable Newt, son of a deceased local prostitute – known in Wild West parlance as a whore – named Maggie. Newt is unaware of who his father is and the cattle drive is a time of discovery for him in many different ways.

There is also Deets, the tracker and former Texas Ranger, Bolivar the cranky cook, Pea who was also a former Texas Ranger, Dish, and the roguish Jake Spoon (see what I did there? Ahem…), yet another who rode with Gus and Call in their Ranger days. Each man receives his time in our minds as McMurtry ensures that we bond with individual characters. Jake brings along the incredibly beautiful, yet lost, Lorie, another whore (I feel uncomfortable using the term, even in this context) from the small settlement of Lonesome Dove who dreams of reaching San Francisco and beginning a new life.

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Of course, what would the Wild West be without some Irishmen, and McMurtry doesn’t disappoint in that regard, although his portrayal of my fellow countrymen sometimes leaves a lot to be desired. The first time we meet the brothers, Allen and Sean O’Brien, is in the badlands of Mexico where both are lost and drunk (thanks Larry, for the stereotyping). Not knowing who Gus and Call are, young Sean (the same age as Newt) tries to escape from them by jumping onto a hobbled mule, thus providing a great laugh for all present. Then we have the elder of the two, Allen O’Brien, uttering these words, You wouldn’t have a bag of potatoes about you sir, would you? … We do miss our spuds.

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For fucks’ sake, McMurtry, have you ever met an Irishman? Should Larry McMurtry make such comments to an Irishman’s face, then I feel that if said Irishman had any self-respect, he would leave Larry carrying his own teeth away from the encounter in his pocket. Throughout, both Sean and Allen are referred to simply as the Irishmen. The Mexicans are not referenced in the same way, but perhaps I am just too sensitive about such matters.

McMurtry does, however, portray both Sean and Allen in a sympathetic and likeable light. He also credits them with being hard workers and good singers, so it’s difficult to understand exactly how McMurtry views those from the Emerald Isle. Of note is Allen O’Brien’s name. I have never, ever, heard of an Irishman with the first name of Allen spelled that way. Of interest though (to me at least) is the case of the Manchester Martyrs, in England. These were 3 Fenians (Irish revolutionaries) executed by the British authorities in the latter part of the 19th century. They are commemorated in verse and song today, 150 years after their deaths. Their surnames were Allen, Larkin and O’Brien. I am inclined to give McMurtry the benefit of the doubt for his earlier improprieties and will strike it down to  simple ignorance.

On the topic of foreign nationalities, Call was born in Scotland before moving to the US as a young boy. McCrae is a Scottish surname. the family seat of the McRae’s is Eilean Donan Castle in the west of Scotland, famous for appearing at the beginning of the original Highlander movie. McMurtry is a name of Gaelic origin from both Ireland and Scotland. Could it be that Larry has tipped his hat to his Scottish ancestry by making both central characters, Gus and Call, of Scottish descent? (McMurtry’s mother was McIver, again a Gaelic name of both Irish and Scottish origin).

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  • Larry McMurtry

Once the cattle drive begins, we start to better know the people involved. Their characters are described in ofttimes gritty detail. McMurtry has not sanitized the life that people led in those heady days, and the story is the better for it. Lonesome Dove is a tale that will capture your attention and hold it fast as you travel the beautiful and dangerous country with the cattle and their guides.

A secondary story-line runs also. This centres around Sheriff July Johnson and his errant wife, Ellie, and her young son, Joe. July is in pursuit of Jake Spoon for an incident that occurred in his jurisdiction, and this eventually brings him into the lives of Gus and Call. Unfortunately for all, the notorious and exceptionally brutal Comanchero, Blue Duck, is operating in the area. His path crosses violently with all.

Lonesome Dove is a considerable read, but the time flies when immersed in this story. I found it difficult to put down. Each page promised more adventure, more danger, more excitement, more pain. Is Gus gong to see his true love, Clara? Will July find Ellie? Will Call open up to Newt? Will Blue Duck remain free? Will the cattle make it to Montana? All these questions and more will occupy the reader. They will all be answered.

Lonesome Dove is not simply a cowboy tale with stunning descriptions of the landscape through which our heroes pass. It is also an in-depth assessment of the human condition and the complexity of interaction. McMurtry doesn’t tend to Oprahfy personal relationships. Instead, he provides the details and insight, and then leaves the reader to draw their own conclusions.

There are passages in Lonesome Dove that may wring a tear from you. It is a tough read in places, but then it was a tough life, and McMurtry has certainly done it justice in the telling.

Fado, fado (Gaelic for long, long ago), I watched the T.V. mini-series based on this book. The magnificent cast included Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Duvall and Danny Glover. Robert Urich played Jake Spoon with great aplomb, and the always beautiful Diane Lane took the demanding role of Lorie. Angelica Huston played Clara and a young Ricky Schroder was cast as Newt. What an assembly!

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I was captivated, as were those within approximately 26 million other homes at the time. It was that good. No CGI, no fancy dialogue or extra touches. The story and the cast carried it all the way to great success. Lonesome Dove was nominated for 18 Emmy awards and won 7. It also won 2 Golden Globes. Not bad for a western.

Many of the cowboys in Lonesome Dove fall in love with Lorie, and so too as a teenage boy did I fall in love with Diane Lane (it may have been lust, but there’s little difference at that age). Of course she also starred in the fantastic Streets of Fire around the same time, which I saw in the cinema. The gorgeous Ms Lane continued to fill my teenage dreams for many years after. But enough of that.

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Anyone who enjoys losing themselves in a mighty story should read Lonesome Dove. Then leave it for 6 months before watching the mini-series. Then contact me to say thank you for such sage advice.

I won’t tell you if Gus and Call make it. I will tell you that they will hold your attention for the entire journey and even after you have put the book away. Previously, I wrote a review of All the Pretty Horses. I mentioned the melancholy that permeates westerns. Lonesome Dove is no exception.

We do have to ignore the very obvious injustices meted out to the First Nations people, however. They are portrayed as sometimes barbaric, sometimes peaceful and always beleagured in this novel. Perhaps it is the unjust fate of all the dispossessed, brutalized and murdered men, women and children of the tribes that lends the genre its inherent sadness. I don’t know. Perhaps.

In any event, Lonesome Dove is a story that should be read, if only so that you might be transported back in your own time machine that is also known as a book.

Sult scale rating: 8.5 out of 10. Highly recommended.

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(final day of shooting of Lonesome Dove at Clara’s House with cast assembled)

 

 

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