Comanche Moon by Larry McMurtry (1997) 752 p.
Comanche Moon is the final volume McMurtry wrote about Augustus McRae and Woodrow Call, but the second chronologically – it slots in between Dead Man’s Walk, when Gus and Call are freshly minted teenage Texas Rangers, and Lonesome Dove, the original Pulitzer Prize winning doorstopper which sees them retired and herding cattle in their fifties. (There’s a fourth volume, Streets of Laredo, which takes place after Lonesome Dove and which I haven’t read yet.)
Comanche Moon takes place in the 1850s and 1860s, spanning a fair hunk of our heroes’ time at the core of their life as Texas Rangers. Rangers are of course fabled figures in Wild West mythology, but as I’ve come to expect from McMurtry, he doesn’t romanticise them. Despite their nostalgic memories of the good old days in Lonesome Dove, Gus and Call and their comrades are underequipped, undertrained and underpaid, and suffer from a nagging doubt that they really make very little difference in keeping settlers safe from the Comanche. Texas itself, now a state of the Union, is portrayed as a dusty backwater – even its capital is a ramshackle frontier town in which the senators spend their days blind drunk in saloons. Nor does McMurtry shy away from the fact that his ostensible heroes are meant to be “civilising” the frontier and driving away the “savages” – in fact, Comanche Moon spends quite a lot of time inside the heads of various Native American characters. Coming from a white 20th century Texan that would normally be cause for concern, but McMurtry’s skill with character is such that the “Indians” are as well-rounded, complex and diverse as the Americans. They’re very different, of course, since they believe they live in a world of spirits and witches and gods and portents, but at the same time some are more dubious about that than others – much like some Texans roll their eyes at the Bible-bashers amongst their number. McMurtry also manages to make the Indians sympathetic despite often being violent nightmares in human flesh. Buffalo Hump, for instance – apparently a real historical figure – is a chieftan who halfway through the book brutally murders the unarmed parents of one of the main characters during a horrific raid of rape and plunder. Yet because we see him as part of his time and place – and because we see so much of the novel through his eyes, and feel his gnawing anxiety about the end of his people and the end of his era – he’s a character you respect, even if you don’t necessarily like him. (This reminds me of quite a few characters in Game of Thrones.) Part of this is skilful character writing; another part of it is McMurtry’s dispassionate style, in which he relays the horrible facts of the frontier in unsentimental prose which can make the actions and choices of characters feel as immutable – and as incapable of guilt or responsibility – as a landslide or a flash flood. McMurtry writes about a world of implacable injustice.
And as always, he’s also very gripping. One of the driving narratives in Comanche Moon is the story of Inish Scull, a larger-than-life Harvard history professor with a penchant for combat who seeks his fortune with the Texas Rangers, and by the campfire at night reads out stories of Napoleon or the Ancient Greeks to the uneducated hicks that make up his lacklustre squad. The novel kicks off when Scull’s gigantic warhorse is stolen by the Comanche thief Kicking Wolf, who takes it to Mexico as a gift for the feared bandit warlord Ahumado. Promoting the bemused Gus and Call to captains and entrusting them with taking the Rangers back to Austin, Scull bravely but unwisely pursues Kicking Wolf alone into Ahumado’s territory, and what subsequently happens to him stretches out over a good course of the novel. From any reasonable point of view Scull’s actions are foolishly reckless, but McMurtry shows his motivations so well – his ennui, his thirst for adventure, his rollicking battle spirit which sits just this side of sanity – that when Scull ended up in an agonisingly brutal battle of wits with Ahumado, including a particularly horrific form of torture, I found myself rooting for him harder than any other character I can remember in quite a while. (It’s all the more gripping since, after the previous two books I’ve read, I know that McMurtry is up there with George R.R. Martin when it comes to killing off characters who seem untouchable).
This series – especially the first two books – often reminds me of the fantasy genre, telling of wild adventures and unknown foreign lands and death-defying exploits. (In that sense McMurtry also reminds me of Patrick O’Brien, and in fact I wouldn’t hesitate to call Gus and Call, with their odd couple relationship, the Aubrey and Maturin of the American West.) There’s one particular scene: Scull arrives in Ahumado’s territory, is led down into a meteor crater amid a horde of hundreds of starving peasant slaves, and is forced to eat the cooked brains of his beloved horse. (“So it must have been when the cavemen ate the mastodons, Scull thought.”) The way McMurtry paints this scene – the slow build-up of ominous dread, the primitive barbarism of it all – makes it feel like something out of a Norse saga. And what is the Wild West if not the great fantasy of America?