Six month ago in this space I talked about one of my favorite western novels that deserves to get a lot more attention: The Ghost with Blue Eyes, by Robert J. Randisi. Today I am going to discuss another favorite, but this one has had plenty of attention: Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry. A Pulitzer prize; two Spur Awards (one for the novel in question, another for the prequel Comanche Moon); five TV miniseries (with a Spur for screenwriter John Wilder); a television series; and a ranking of #2 on WWA’s list of the greatest novels of the 20th century (right behind Shane.)
I know that Lonesome Dove sits at or near the top of the list for a lot of WF members besides me. I also know a lot of WF members who flat-out don’t like it –but I’d say they’re in the minority.
For this article I’m going to talk about, not only the novel, but all four novels in the cycle. Again, some people who love the first one don’t like the others, but I like them all. Taken together they make a complete cycle –I feel the same way about Godfather 3, by the way, I feel it ends the story perfectly.
Speaking of cycles, I believe that McMurtry’s will one day be considered the 20th century equivalent of James Fenimore Cooper’s 19th century cycle, The Leatherstocking Tales –the five novels about Hawkeye, alias Nathaniel Bumppo.
Like Cooper’s books, McMurtry’s were not published in the chronological order in which they should be read (I guess you could throw George Lucas in there, too. Or throw him somewhere.)
Order of publication:
1. Lonesome Dove- 1985
2. Streets of Laredo- 1993
3. Dead Man’s Walk- 1995
4. Comanche Moon- 1997
- Dead Man's Walk – set in the early 1840s
- Comanche Moon – set in the 1850–60s
- Lonesome Dove – set in mid-to-late 1870s
- Streets of Laredo – set in the early 1890s
I’d like to point out a couple of things I like about McMurtry’s writing:
1. 1. His use of humor. Some of his characters can be hilarious; others not so much, but can still be in humorous situations. In particular, the author uses humor to draw the reader in and make them fond of the characters, as well as to set them at ease. Then –pow! Something horrible happens to that character, and it impacts you far more than it would’ve had you not grown so fond of them.
2. 2. The way he plays with history. You might think this is an odd thing for a historian to say –and western fans in general tend to be history buffs, and immediately jump on any anachronisms or historical inaccuracies. McMurtry, who does his historical homework, knows this. You can be reading along in the Lonesome Dove saga and realize “Oh yeah –I recognize this story. Woodrow and Gus are Goodnight and Loving, and Deets is Bose Ikard.” Or you might encounter actual historical figures as supporting characters, such as Judge Roy Bean, or Bigfoot Wallace. And then, once again, you are set at ease: “Oh, I’ve read my history, I know what happens to this character.” And then –pow! Out of the blue, they meet a grisly fate that you never saw coming, and you are totally caught by surprise. And while one part of you may say “Hey! This is historically inaccurate!” another part says: “Wow, that scene really had a lot of dramatic impact.”
3. 3. His use of longing. All the main characters in Lonesome Dove desperately want something they can never have, and their yearning resonates with the reader.
The saga deals with some themes that show up in a lot of McMurtry’s work, which I discuss HERE –but as a whole, it tells a very specific story. I’ll use The Godfather saga again, as a comparison: that cycle tells of the rise, and ultimately the very hard fall, of Michael Corleone; that character goes from innocent to diabolical to tragic, as he reaps the whirlwind he has sown.
The Lonesome Dove cycle, too, is ultimately one person’s story. That one person is Texas Ranger Woodrow Call. This may sound odd, as the novel entitled Lonesome Dove –and three-quarters of the saga, altogether –tells of the lifelong friendship of two men, Call and his Ranger partner Augustus “Gus” McCrae. McCrae dies ¾ of the way through, however, and the final book (chronologically) is all about Call. And it is Call’s life that is the complete cycle, as I will explain.
The two partners, who start out as Rangers in their late teens, are complete opposites in almost every way. Gus is a starry-eyed romantic, likes to think of himself as a philosopher (certainly not as a laborer!), is very vain, generally liked by most who know him, is very impulsive, and wears his heart on his sleeve. Woodrow is a pragmatic realist, whose entire focus is always the job at hand and getting it done. He is not comfortable with his own feelings, or with women (Gus is very comfortable with women), and most people –while they respect him –see him as a hardcase, and not the most enjoyable company. The one thing they have in common is an almost superhuman competence at what they do.
Call does have his impulsive streak, though. He has an intense temper –his fury is a sight to behold. In each of the four books, at some point, he is provoked to beat someone nearly to death and explains “I can’t abide rude behavior in a man. I won’t tolerate it.” And I think you could argue that the turning point in the saga, and in Call’s life, is when he decides –almost on a whim, urged on by the irresponsible Jake Spoon –to abandon everything and drive a herd to Montana to start over.
In many ways, though, Woodrow Call is emotionally crippled. He never tells the woman he loves (maybe) how he feels about her, even though she continually sacrifices for him. He never admits his paternity to the only son he ever has, Newt, even though Newt’s whole life is an effort to get that simple recognition.
Gus chastises him all along the way, providing the voice of conscience and a perfect example of how to live in the moment and truly appreciate life. And while Gus is often a blowhard, he is truly kind and loving –no one has to wonder where they stand with him.
Gus dies when an Indian arrow in his leg causes an infection. He allows the doctor to amputate one leg, but when the gangrene spreads to the other one he chooses to die rather than live a complete cripple. Woodrow views this as a waste, and an expression of Gus’s vanity. Gus views it as a matter of living life the way he wants, or not living it at all. It may well be that, having finally, completely lost the love of his own life, Clara, Gus has no desire to go on.
At one point in that same novel, Call had said “The best thing you can do with death is to ride away from it.” And after fulfilling his lifelong friend’s dying wish to be buried at the Texas site where he had been happiest with Clara, Woodrow does just that. Streets of Laredo picks up many years later. The Montana ranch venture had not worked out, Newt was killed in an accident without ever hearing Woodrow admit he was his father, and Call has become a bounty hunter.
In this final novel (though it was written second), Call is shot by the psychotic young bandit Joey Garza. Call is now the one whose leg is amputated- and in the novel (though this is not clearly explained in the miniseries), he also completely loses the use of one arm. He is taken in by his old corporal, Pea-Eye Parker, and his wife Lorena, and develops a very close relationship with Garza’s sister Teresa, a little blind girl. He spends his time with her, sharpening knives for a meager living, working the stone with his one leg and telling the little girl stories. When old friends –like Charles Goodnight and his cowboys –come by the Parker place and see what the great Woodrow Call has been reduced to, they are overcome by sadness and pity.
And this is how the saga ends.
You may not realize it, but two very important things have happened to Woodrow Call.
1. 1. When faced with the same circumstances as Gus, he chose to continue living.
2. 2. In his relationship with little Teresa, Call has finally taken to heart all the lessons his friend Gus spent a lifetime trying to teach him; he has finally learned how to live, by learning how to love. He has been broken physically, but redeemed as a human being. Charlie Goodnight's cowboys –and perhaps the readers –may look upon Woodrow spinning his whetstone and think what a horrible waste it is… but this scene is the first scene in the entire series where Woodrow Call actually seems happy.
That’s what makes Streets of Laredo (like Godfather 3) such an important capstone. We see the ultimate transformation of the protagonist, and the story comes full-circle.
The Lonesome Dove Saga is the story of how Woodrow Call finally learns to be human. His physical crippling has led to his emotional uncrippling.