Dead Man’s Walk by Larry McMurtry (1995) 447 p.
I read Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Western Lonesome Dove last year while I was travelling across America, and loved it more than enough to read the rest of the series. It has a bit of a convoluted history, though: McMurtry first wrote a sequel, Streets of Laredo, then went back and wrote about the adventures of a young Gus and Call in this prequel, Dead Man’s Walk, and then his fourth and final novel – Comanche Moon – is the third in chronological terms, squeezed in between Dead Man’s Walk and Comanche Moon. I always prefer to do things chronologically, so Dead Man’s Walk it is, which takes us way back to the early 1840s when Gus and Call had freshly joined the Texas Rangers.
Somewhere along the way I got it into my head that the brief-lived Republic of Texas, between its independence from Mexico and its assimilation into the United States, only existed for one year. It actually lasted for ten, from 1836 to 1846, which is quite a long time if you think about it. Dead Man’s Walk seems to take place in the early 1840s, and is loosely based on the republic’s historical ill-fated expedition to annex New Mexico, with Gus and Call joining an expedition – half trading party, half conquering army – which aims to seek out the riches of Sante Fe.
In Lonesome Dove the two of them seem to look back on their time in the Rangers with great fondness, but the immediate impression of the organisation in Dead Man’s Walk is one of a complete shambles: underequipped, underarmed, inexperienced, and led by “reformed” outlaws, pirates and murderers. Call in particular soon develops an angry contempt for his superiors as he witnesses greed, needless deaths, betrayal and on-the-spot executions for insubordination. For all that his novels have the style and the cover art of something your Dad might read, McMurtry has never idealised or romanticised the West: he just writes about all its brutality and suffering in his plain, unruffled prose.
The way McMurtry seems to float above all that conflict and pointless death, recording it with mostly the same level of emotion as witnessing a landslide or a sunset or something else completely beyond the ken of man, is quite interesting for a modern reader given how heavily Native Americans are involved in this volume. (I know it’s from 1995, but that was twenty years ago now, and in any case McMurtry is of an earlier pedigree.) In Lonesome Dove the Native Americans were mostly licked and beaten; a few rag-tag tribes struggling to survive in Montana, still somewhat dangerous but mostly passing away into history. In Dead Man’s Walk, thirty-five years earlier, West Texas is still very much Comanche country – a deadly wasteland with warriors who can out-hunt, out-pace and out-kill parties of better-armed Texas Rangers. The Comanche are mostly presented as violent, murdering, ineffable foes, and all the while the left-wing Guardian reader inside me squirms, knowing full well that the larger story of Native Americans is one of violent displacement and dispossession. But McMurtry never comes across as a right-wing flag-waving Texan who considers the white man’s conquest important or desirable; like so many things in his writing, it simply… is. (Besides which, the Texans generally aren’t portrayed sympathetically either.) This is Gus and Call’s story, and Gus and Call were Texas Rangers, terrified of the lethal Comanches who stalked them across a harsh and foreign landscape. That’s the story being told here.
I enjoyed Dead Man’s Walk a lot. It’s not a patch on Lonesome Dove, which has far greater themes about time and age and nostalgia and friendship; this one feels an awful lot more like McMurtry pumping out another book for fans of one of the great buddy acts in Western literature. I suspect Comanche Moon may be more of the same, though the final volume, Streets of Laredo, should take us back into that bittersweet old age. (And anybody who’s read Lonesome Dove or seen the miniseries will know full well why a sequel to that story would be bittersweet.) But “more of the same” isn’t something I can begrudge McMurtry for writing – I enjoyed it, and I’ll read more of it.