Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (1985) 895 p.

I sometimes have a habit of reading “appropriate” books while travelling, i.e. reading The Beach while I was in Thailand and reading The Motorcycle Diaries and Long Way Round while I was on a motorbike trip. In April, May and June of this year, as I travelled from my summer in Perth to my new life in London, I had it all mapped out. The bulk of it was a motorcycle roadtrip with my father between Los Angeles and New York, and I was unsure how much reading I’d actually get done, so I aimed high. I planned to read something Victorian while returning to Melbourne for a week to visit friends (check – The Broken Shore), something American and wildernessy while we were camping out in the West – that would be the book I’m reviewing now, the western epic Lonesome Dove – maybe read Willa Cather’s Death Comes To The Archbishop by the time we got to New Mexico, start on Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi when we reached the South, Jonathon Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn for the two weeks in New York and maybe Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites for my four-day stopover in Iceland between New York and London.

So much for all that. I started Lonesome Dove in late April in Los Angeles, while I was buying and prepping a pair of motorcycles, and finished it about seven weeks later in June on the flight out of JFK. In my defence it’s a 900-page brick of a novel, but obviously I overestimated how much reading I’d get done amidst the hurly-burly of travel, and also I’m an enormous dork for mapping out my location-specific reading list in the first place.

Anyway. Lonesome Dove is a well-regarded Western, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for 1985, and was apparently adapted into a very successful TV miniseries – I actually spoiled the fate of a major character while at a newsagency at JFK, leafing through a magazine featuring a retrospective of the miniseries. It follows a group of former Texas Rangers turned horse traders, the Hat Creek livery outfit, living in the tiny town of Lonesome Dove at the edge of the Rio Grande. When a former member of their outfit returns after ten years of wandering with tales of the beautiful, empty grasslands of Montana, just waiting for settlers to come and claim them, the outfit decides to take one last ride, driving a herd of cattle all the way across the plains to Montana.

Lonesome Dove encompasses all of the Western tropes you could ever want: cowboys, cattle drives, outlaws, horse thieves, hangings, whores, Indians, lonely little prairie towns, gambling, whiskey, saloons, sheriffs, deputies, Texas Rangers, Mexican border raids, preachers, riverboats, buffalo hunters, and a bunch of other stuff I’m forgetting. And because it won the Pulitzer, I was expecting a tone similar to Cormac McCarthy, but Lonesome Dove is surprisingly a much lighter novel than anything like Blood Meridian – in fact, it’s often quite funny. The two main characters are the kind of best friends who’ve been together so long they’re almost like an old married couple, bickering and arguing and making witty comments, and there are some great moments throughout. This, for example, when former comrade Jake Spoon returns to the Hat Creek outfit, on the run from the law in Arkansas because he accidentally killed a dentist:

“Everybody in town liked that dentist.”

“Aw, Jake, that won’t stick,” Augustus said. “Nobody really likes dentists.”

“This one was the mayor,” Jake said.

It reminded me a lot of True Grit (I’ve seen the modern film, but haven’t read the book) and I was surprised to find that True Grit was not also a McMurtry novel – it was written by Charles Portis. But that’s the story I’d compare it to most: mostly fun and amusing, but with some serious moments of sadness. Because about a third of the way into Lonesome Dove the story suddenly becomes quite dark – some awful things happen, and we realise that the West isn’t all riding horses with your buddies and cracking jokes and appreciating the landscape.
And that doesn’t let up; there are some scenes towards the end of the novel that are truly heart-wrenching. But McMurtry’s tone remains the same throughout, switching from humour to sadness without any particular change in the authorial voice: a sort of hardened-yet-optimistic, seen-it-all-before old man of the West; fatalistic, but not in a depressing way. It’s an effective tone, especially when dealing with death – the deaths of many major characters simply occur, often for stupid or coincidental reasons, and the other characters and the reader just have to move on from it. It’s a good reflection of what life is really like: nobody is safe, least of all in the Old West. And despite having a fairly simple writing style, heavily focused on dialogue, McMurtry also creates some beautiful, almost cinematic images, such as when the Hat Creek outfit emerges from a terrifying night stealing cattle in Mexico to arrive at the Rio Grande at sunrise. I was going to quote that passage here, but it simply doesn’t work out of context, because it’s not so much McMurtry’s prose; it’s the story, the whole dark and ominous chapters of dangerous stealth and sudden action that precede it, capped off with the relief of daylight at the American border.

This tone perhaps has its flaws. The novel ends rather abruptly, and just as easily could have ended a hundred pages earlier or a hundred pages later – or a thousand pages later. Lonesome Dove feels less like a strictly structured novel than a 900-page peek into a chapter of a much longer saga. And indeed, there are apparently three other books in the series – a sequel and two prequels. (By the way, don’t read McMurtry’s 2010 introduction included in some versions, because he spoils a major plot point in the sequel, much as Stephen King ruined the ending of The Running Man in the introduction to all of his Bachman books. I don’t understand these people.)

Lonesome Dove was one of those novels I enjoyed quite a bit while I was reading it, but never felt hugely pressed to read when I wasn’t. Hugely enjoyable, but not gripping, yet nonetheless a novel I’m very pleased I read. It’s a great story, and I’ll probably read the others in the series eventually. I am a little surprised that it won the Pulitzer, since it would be (fairly) described as a book you might buy your dad for Father’s Day, but maybe the committee was a bit less snobbish back then.

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