Sunday, February 12, 2012

Book Review: Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

More than ten years ago when I first met my best friend, I remember being somewhat surprised when she told me her favorite author was Larry McMurtry and her favorite book, Lonesome Dove. I don't think I questioned her on it exactly, but I remember thinking, "Really? Isn't that a Western?" But I trusted her so I kept it in mind, but was further thrown when I discovered quite how long it is (975 pages!) Nevertheless I picked it up a few years ago at a used bookstore. And I was further surprised and intrigued to see that it won the Pulitzer Prize.

I took a trip last month where I not only had the usual flying time to read but on my trip I had a lot of useless down time (work for 15 minutes, nothing to do for 45 minutes, work for 15 minutes, nothing for 1 hour, and so on the three days.) So I thought it was the perfect time for an extra-large tome. Unfortunately, I also had to read Doctor Zhivago for my book club which bogged me down so I only read a little bit of Lonesome Dove on the flight home.

Wow, what a wonderful book! I can't believe I waited so long to read it! In fact, I am annoyed that I did not read this years ago!

In the 1870s, Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call are former Texas Rangers who live in Lonesome Dove, Texas and run a livery stable. When Jake McCall, a former fellow ranger who is on the run after having accidentally shot and killed the mayor of Fort Smith, Arkansas, turns up in town waxing rhapsodic about Montana, Call decides they're going to start the first ranch in Montana, despite the fact that neither of them are cowboys or ranchers. Gus and Call and the rest of their crew, Deets, Pea Eye, and Newt rustle several thousand cattle from Mexico, Call hires a bunch of local hands and cowboys including Dish, the lead hand, and they set out for Montana. Jake declines to go but ends up kind of tagging along, with the town whore Lorena, until bad things happen. Meanwhile the Fort Smith sheriff is looking for him, the deputy is looking for the sheriff, the sheriff's new wife is looking for her former lover, and eventually everyone converges.

I don't want to tell any more for fear of giving away spoilers, but the book is just fantastic! It's not so much the plot - although that is wonderful with me getting quite worried about a few of them and being rather upset at a few deaths (and not at all upset about a few others.) But the way McMurtry tells the story is so masterful, so evocative, and so melodic. Normally I hate the descriptions lyrical and epic as to me they indicate a lack of plot and a love of too many words. Yet I would say both apply here in a positive way, and McMurtry obviously does have a great love of language which he uses to great effect (especially in the character of the verbose Gus.)

Other authors should not emulate him - no one else could write a nearly 1000 page epic of cowboying without it devolving into a caricature of Western novels, no one could treat Lorena and Clara (Gus's long lost true love) with such care, no one could make me care so much about a bunch of whoring, poor, uneducated cowboys traveling across the country. Some of his techniques, such as his omniscient narration from most all of the characters' point of view, switching frequently and unevenly, are handled so stunningly that after reading this novel, I think no other author should even attempt that as they will always come in a dingy second place, at best, and be proven inept at worst. I was thrilled the book was so long as I never wanted it to end. I loved spending so much time with Gus and Call and the boys.

That said, I have looked into the 3 other books in the series (Lonesome Dove was written first but chronologically is the third) and I think I'm going to pass. The above mentioned friend who recommended Dove is sure she's read them but remembers nothing. Another friend said they're okay - but next to a masterpiece, okay just doesn't cut it. And I want to remember Gus and Call and the boys as they were, with nothing to tarnish my memory. Everyone should read this book. I have no doubt why it won the Pulitzer, and it's the best book I've read in a very long time.

I bought this book at a used bookstore.


Jen said...

Nice post! I love this book, and have read it a few times. Which is odd, considering I never really got into McMurtry's other books, and I don't tend to read westerns. However, there is something about the combination of the characters in this book, and the storytelling -- I tear up in a few places every time I read it.

I don't know if you would like it, but they did a television miniseries of this a few years back, and it's actually not too bad. Robert Duvall is Gus, and Tommy Lee Jones plays McCrae.

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad you read Lonesome Dove.

But I wouldn't go so far as to say that other writer should not try using an omniscent narrator that switches frequently from character to character.

First of all, it's a pretty standard technique in literary fiction, and most seasoned writers can do this with their hands tied behind their back.

Larry McMurty is far from the first one to do this. Check out Flaubert's Madame Bovary.

And the technique of switching from one characters head (or point of view) to another character's head is not all that difficult either.

One tip: if you want to switch to another character's head ... give that character a line of action.

For example: David was nervous that his boss would be upset by his resignation letter. As he handed it to him, he wondered why on earth he couldn't stop his hands from shaking. He felt silly and juvenile. [TRANSITION BEGINS] His boss took the letter, eying David suspiciously. He wondered what David was up to this time. He had come in with these types of letters before, but they were just schemes to get a pay raise. He read the letter and felt of mix of hurt and dissapointment. He knew it would take more than a pay raise to keep David from leaving.

You see, I've switched from David to "the boss" fairly seemlessy.