Streets of Laredo by Larry McMurtry (1993) 589 p.

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(Critical spoiler warning for Dead Man’s Walk, Comanche Moon and Lonesome Dove)

Most books are about what happens. Larry McMurtry’s books are about what happens next.

Obviously that’s true of all books in a sense: the reader is compelled to keep turning the pages to find out what happens. But Larry McMurtry shows us the course of people’s lives, and the consequences of life’s many sorrows, beyond the expected narrative constraint. This is doubly true of Streets of Laredo, the fourth and final installment of the Lonesome Dove series: not just because it’s a low-key sequel to the greatest Western novel of all time – an examination of Woodrow Call’s twilight years after the death of his life partner – but also because of what happens to Call himself at the end of the novel.

After Lonesome Dove I went and read Dead Man’s Walk and Comanche Moon, which are chronologically the first two books in the series. They take place when Call and Gus are younger men, when the Texas frontier was truly wild, when Comanche still ruled the western plains. They lead beautifully into Lonesome Dove: a novel which is, at its heart, about memory and old age and the passage of time. The west is still wild, but only just.

Streets of Laredo takes us into the 1890s. The US census has declared the frontier officially gone, steam trains criss-cross Texas, and Captain Call is living out his old age as a bounty hunter. His reputation precedes him, but Call himself knows his glory days are long gone, the frontier tamed, his old companions mostly dead and buried. He is a grumpy old man after a lifetime spent as a grumpy young man.

I remember going into a gift shop in the American West somewhere and finding a whole section of wall plaques emblazoned with quotes from Lonesome Dove – the miniseries is a cult classic, although I’m not sure that’s the right word for something that was broadly popular. Gus is an endlessly quotable rake for all seasons, but Call also has a deep appeal to the masculine spirit of the American West and a common kind of American man. He’s a matter-of-fact stoic, a cowboy who gets things done and has little tolerance for incompetent people. (It occurred to me that incompetence is portrayed as the primary moral failing imaginable in the Western genre, much as it is in that modern TV western, The Walking Dead.) Call is a hard-working John Wayne cowboy in the classic mould. The fact is, of course, Call is also a miserable bastard. He always has been and always will be: a difficult man whom you’d trust with your life but wouldn’t invite to your dinner table. Yet he’s not unsympathetic; he’s a victim of his own nature as much as anybody else is. It’s a mark of McMurtry’s talent as a writer that trying to describe a character like Call can feel like trying to describe a real human. He does run to a groove, but still contains multitudes, still does unexpected things sometimes. There’s a moment at the start of the book where Call’s employer has a panic attack so Call kindly and gently guides him across the street to the hotel – not because kindness and gentleness are his instinctive responses, but simply because he knows they’re the most efficient way to draw someone down from panic, and Call values efficiency and common sense above all else.

I half-expected I might dislike this book because it lacks Gus, the other end of the axle that spins throughout the series, the two characters balancing each other perfectly while a whole Western universe revolves around them. Gus’ absence is certainly felt, but in many ways that only highlights the novel’s greater themes: Call is left to live on, a full fifteen years after the catastrophic Montana expedition, without his partner, often wondering what he might have done or said. That’s life. That’s death.

Streets of Laredo is, judged by itself as a novel – by its ensemble characters, by the shapes and forms of its plot – probably the weakest of the series. But as a conclusion to the Lonesome Dove series, to the saga of Gus and Call’s lives, and those of the people around them, it’s brilliant. The four books together make up one of those rare things: a story which is greater than the sum of its parts. A 3,000+ page Western epic which is, at surface level, about a friendship and partnership between two men, but which touches on a deeper level about so many more things – most notably, and most skillfully, about the nihilistic injustice of the world, about the way life doesn’t always fit to the patterns of the stories we tell ourselves, about how people cope (or don’t cope) when faced with the fact that their own narrative has gone astray. About what happens next.

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