“When Augustus came out on the porch,the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake–not a very big one.” —Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry
I finished this book a ridiculously long time ago—back in early August. I picked it to keep me entertained on a couple of long Pacific flights. It was just the ticket–substantial and engaging, with memorable characters in a setting that I love.
I’ve read a lot of nonfiction about the Great Plains, both natural and historical. I am particularly fascinated by the 19th century on the plains—the convergence of so many peoples in such a great space. So much change in a sliver of time. Given the choice to head up the mountains or out to the plains, I choose the latter. I can easily imagine the rolling prairie, still there in some places, but mostly farmland now, intersected by gravelly roads and divided by fences. Ghosts of buffalo (just why don’t we let them roam like bears and moose and deer?) and the huge arc of the sky. I close my eyes when a plane crosses my vision but I can smell the sweet scent of wild grasses and hear the lone cottonwood leaves rattle.
Romantic? Yes! But so is Larry McMurtry. He spends a whole 250 pages introducing us to the mismatched, odd residents of Lonesome Dove who seem almost comical in their quirks. That’s a lot of page getting to know a handful of characters and clearly what the novel is about. Then they begin their momentous journey heading north, across the great southern and central plains the remote and untamed northern ones north of the Yellowstone river in Montana. From my nonfiction readings, I could see where McMurtry picked up ideas, portraits, and historical places and blended them into his unique characters and their fictional adventures. It was fun to follow along.
Because I haven’t read many Westerns, I thought a lot about the hegemonic masculine image of the cowboy (and his Other, the Indian) as I considered the characters I was encountering. I wondered at first if McMurtry wasn’t going to turn that image on its head when he introduced us to the odd residents of Lonesome Dove. For all the downright quirkiness of his characters, I don’t think that the novel takes us much beyond the images we know from popular culture. McCall is the taciturn one, out of touch with his feelings, clueless about women, and the embodiment of bravery, hard work, and loyalty. Gus is the ladies man, gambler, and drinker—a crack shot and a gentleman when it counts (but not enough to hold a long term relationship). The badass Indian warrior is all rolled up into one elusive, cruel Comanche named Blue Duck. Women are whores or tough homesteaders (even though Clara is a memorably outspoken and strong female character–one of my favorites), all at the mercy of men good and bad and pathetic. Some characters, like Newt, come of age and we get a glimpse of the man he will become. Not too much to surprise us in any of them and their outcomes after all.
But maybe this is why the novel works. The setting is lifted from history and lore, the unique characters are but skins over iconic ones we know well. If you close your eyes from time to time as you read, you can feel the horse move under you up the trail, hear the pounding of hooves in the dust, and feel the wind lift your bonnet strings. No surprises, but better than B movies and a neck cramp for sure.