Our book today is Larry McMurtry’s 1985 masterpiece Lonesome Dove, his epic story of two retired Texas Rangers, Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae, leading a cattle-drive from their flyspeck home of Lonesome Dove, Texas, to the wilds of the Montana territory. The two men are vividly different characters – Call driven and taciturn, McCrae footloose and talkative – united only by the fact that they’re more capable than most of the people around them, better shots, cooler under fire, more resourceful (they’re also old friends – Lonesome Dove examines the dynamics of male friendship better than almost any book I know). They gather a ragtag group of cowboys and hangers-on – plus a couple of their old colleagues from their Ranger days – and launch their drive on nothing much more than the report of good grazing land up north.

There’s a wide array of sub-and-counterplots to that main one: Jake Spoon, another shiftless ex-Ranger colleague of Call and McCrae’s, is as weak as they are strong and comes to no good; Clara, the love of McCrae’s life, has a life of her own now out on the prairie; Sheriff July Johnson, a good man caught up in grinding circumstances, loses everything; Lorena, a kind-hearted whore from Lonesome Dove, travels with the expedition in hopes of finding a better life; and Blue Duck, a ruthless Comanchero bandit, finds himself almost as adrift in the modern world as Call and McCrae. Dozens more characters fill up this long and indelibly fantastic novel, and each one is fully realized in brush-strokes of very minimal fussiness.

But it’s the core group of impromptu cattle-drivers who command the center stage, and their journey, like that of the Pequod in Moby Dick, is the essence of the book (there’s a small mountain of undergrad term papers to be written comparing Lonesome Dove with Moby Dick; I’m inclined to think McMurtry planned half those similarities from the start). We follow them through bear and snake attacks, through Indian trouble and thunderstorms and hail. In one magnificent scene, the gigantic bull who leads the cattle herd faces off against a grizzly bear, and in another, tenser scene, Call and McCrae an ironic menace – the United States Army:

The leader of the troop was a small man with a gray mustache, who wore a Captain’s bars. He seemed irritated at the sight of the herd. It was soon plain that he was drunk.

Beside him rode a large man in greasy buckskins, clearly a scout. He was bearded and had a wad of tobacco in his jaw.

“I’m Captain Weaver and this is Dixon, our scout,” the Captain said. “Where the hell do you men think you’re taking these cattle?”

“We thought we were headed for Montana,” Augustus said lightly. “Where are we, Illinois?”

Call was irritated with Gus. He would make a joke.

“No, but you’ll wish you were if Red Cloud finds you,” Captain Weaver said. “You’re in the middle of an Indian war, that’s where you are.”

“Why in hell would anybody think they wanted to take cattle to Montana?” Dixon, the scout, said. He had an insolent look.

“We thought it would be a good place to sit back and watch ’em shit,” Augustus said. Insolence was apt to bring out the comic in him, as Call knew all too well.

“We’ve heard there are wonderful pastures in Montana,” Call said, hoping to correct the bad impression Gus was giving.

“There may be, but you cowpokes won’t live to see them,” Dixon said.

“Oh well,” Augustus said. “We wasn’t always cowpokes. We put in some twenty years fighting Comanches in the state of Texas. Don’t these Indians up here fall off their horses like other Indians when you put a bullet or two in them?”

“Some do and some just keep coming,” Captain Weaver said. “I didn’t come over here to talk all morning. Have you men seen any sign?”

“Our scout didn’t mention any,” Call said, waving to Deets.

“Oh, you’ve got a nigger for a scout,” Dixon said. “No wonder you’re lost.”

“We ain’t lost,” Call said, annoyed suddenly. “And that black man could track you across the coals of hell.”

“And bring you back on a pitchfork, if we asked him to,” Augustus added.

“What makes you think you can say things like that to us?” Captain Weaver said, flushing with anger.

“Ain’t it still a free country?” Augustus said. “Who asked you to ride up and insult our scout?”

Deets came loping up and Call asked him if he had seen any Indian sign.

“None between here and the river,” Deets said.

A pale-looking young lieutenant suddenly spoke up.

“I thought they went east,” he said.

“We went east,” Weaver said. “Where do you think we’ve been the last week?”

“Maybe they went farther and faster,” Augustus said. “Indians usually do. From the looks of those nags you’re riding they could probably outrun you on foot.”

“You’re a damn impertinent man,” Weaver said. “Those Indians killed a buffalo hunter and a woman, two days ago. Three weeks ago they wiped out a family southeast of here. If you see them, you’ll wish you kept your damn beeves in Texas.”

“Let’s go,” Call said, abruptly turning his horse.

“We need horses,” Captain Weaver said. “Ours are about ridden down.”

“Ain’t that what I said that you thought was so impertinent?” Augustus remarked.

“I see you’ve got extras,” Weaver said. “We’ll take ’em. There’s a man who sells horses west of Ogallala. You can buy some more there and send the Army a bill.”

“No, thanks,” Call said. “We like the ones we’ve got.”

“I wasn’t asking,” Weaver said. “I’m requisitioning your horses.”

Augustus laughed. Call didn’t. He could see that the man was serious.

“We need ’em,” Dixon said. “We’ve got to protect this frontier.”

Augustus laughed again. “Who have you protected lately?” he asked. “All you’ve told us about are people you didn’t protect.”

Lonesome Dove is a disarmingly funny book, a thrilling book, an insightful and ultimately moving book (it’s not a perfect book; certain words get repeated carelessly, and some of the subplots do meander). McMurtry has written things very nearly as good (stretches of The Last Picture Show and Buffalo Girls, for instance, and all of Moving On), but nothing to fully equal this – and certainly nothing to beat it. Moving On, for instance, is a great novel, as rich and real a book as you’ll read in a year. But Lonesome Dove is the kind of book most authors (Tolstoy and Austen notwithstanding) only write once in a lifetime. Even if you think you don’t like westerns, you should read it. It’s big; reading it adds to you.

  • John

    you know, it’s funny, but I think I don’t like westerns. I liked Deadwood pretty good, and I like the old John Ford movies, but Zane Gray ripoffs & Peckinpah & Spaghetti have about ruined the whole genre for me. I mean I just don't think I would have been interested in most of those cliches the first time around, let alone the 100th (dust, injuns, tobacca spit). I've probably always avoided Lonesome Dove for that reason (tho I do have a copy, and from you), but this post does hearten me a little.

    What are the other good westerns, film and print, do you think?

  • steve

    Well, in print there’s always “Laughing Boy” and “Where Is My Wandering Boy Tonight?” (VERY funny) and “True Grit” and “Valdez is Coming” and even “Riders of the Purple Sage” (and McMurtry’s own “Anything for Billy” too, if it isn’t too Gore Vidal-contaminated for you!)(NOBODY else would get that reference…)

    And on film? Need you even ask? “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” “Fort Apache,” “True Grit,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence,” the incomplete epic that is “Deadwood,” “Lonesome Dove,” and, of course, that Bible of my own, “Rooster Cogburn”!

  • steve

    The REASON you don’t “like” Westerns is because you’re a low-down lily-livered CITY SLICKER, you side-windin’ owlhoot!

  • brian

    Great post Steve. I’ve always wanted to read this but the length tends to scare me off. What can I say, I’m an incredibly slow reader.

    I love a good western, even though I’ve seen so few of the classics. I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never seen Ford’s The Searchers, while I have seen She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Stagecoach.

    Unlike John, I love Peckinpah and think that The Wild Bunch did pretty much the same thing Eastwood’s Unforgiven did, 20 years earlier. The most interesting western I’ve seen recently was De Toth’s The Day of the Outlaw which featured Burl Ive’s as the bad guy who holds a snowbound mountain town hostage and spends the entire picture with a bullet lodged near his heart. I kept expecting him to morph into Sam the Snowman.

    Of course, we all must consider the best western of the previous 20 years to be the Chris Kattan zombie epic, Undead or Alive.

  • Sam

    Lonesome Dove is amazing–and the TV movie is great too, with Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones (imagine them speaking the dialogue below).

    I saw The Searchers and I don’t see the appeal. The characters are all caricatures, the scenes are canned, the subplots are stupid, the Indians are white guys, it’s not all that visually beautiful, and even the monomania of the central story is a little wan. What am I missing?

  • steve

    You’re not missing nuthin, you lily-livered low-down side-windin’ city slicker!

  • Thomas

    Steve, you absolutely hit the nail on the head about Lonesome Dove, it is a truly sprawling and ultimately deeply emotional book. It is a rare thing a writer can do, to make you actually care for their protagonists but McMurtry is exquist at doing just this and Woodrow and Gus stand out as two of the best characters in American literature period.

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