We’re all familiar with stories centering on people pulling off herculean tasks. Sometimes people just have need to do something that ends up seeming staggering to others, likely even themselves if they aren’t simply foolhardy. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry is a little bit different though, and that intrigues me. The early massive cattle drive from Texas to Montana when no one had done such a thing was certainly herculean…but it does seem a bit unusual in the fact that they didn’t really have any need to do it.
(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 7th for Arthur Golden)
Augustus McCrae and Woodrow F. Call are aging men, widely famous for years of service as Texas Rangers. An old Ranger buddy shows up with stories about Montana and Call decides to rustle a massive herd of cattle from Mexico and head on up there, despite having more than enough money and all the adventures he really needed to ever have. Gus sees the pointlessness in it, but goes along anyway. Despite his carping, he wouldn’t miss it. Really, it’s more about facing the sunset in a way that is how they have proudly lived their lives than any actual need to accomplish the massive endeavor.
It was that they had roved too long, Augustus concluded, when his mind turned to such matters. They were people of the horse, not of the town; in that they were more like the Comanches than Call would ever have admitted. They had been in Lonesome Dove nearly ten years, and yet what little property they had acquired was so worthless that neither of them would have felt bad about just saddling up and riding off from it.
Indeed, it seemed to Augustus that that was what both of them had always expected would happen. They were not of the settled fraternity, he and Call. From time to time they talked of going west of the Pecos, perhaps rangering out there; but so far only the rare settler had cared to challenge the Apache, so there was no need for Rangers.
Augustus had not expected that Call would be satisfied just to rustle Mexican cattle forever, but neither had he expected him to suddenly decide to strike out for Montana. Yet it was obvious the idea had taken hold of the man.
“I tell you what, Call,” Augustus said. “You and Deets and Pea go on up there to Montany and build a nice snug cabin with a good fireplace and at least one bed, so it’ll be waiting when I get there. Then clear out the last of the Cheyenne and the Blackfeet and any Sioux that look rambunctious. When you’ve done that, me and Jake and Newt will gather up a herd and meet you on Powder River.”
Call looked almost amused.
But don’t get me wrong. That isn’t the whole story, and it isn’t just about Gus and Call. There’s love, people trying to love, people trying to survive and make a living, people trying to deal with their pasts, and people being cruel to each other. There’s a lot to Lonesome Dove, as complex a maze of human stories as one might expect in a book this massive. It’s not just a pulp western, regardless what I may have originally feared when I picked up the book.
I’m not usually one for epics or westerns, so I didn’t expect to think a huge amount of an epic western. However, there is a reason why Lonesome Dove is regarded as perhaps the best epic western around. If someone thinks more highly of another, I haven’t heard about it.
Despite a staggering number of characters, I didn’t have any problem keeping people straight. Also, despite a staggering number of pages, McMurtry didn’t seem to have any problem keeping his eye on his scope, a statement about how humans live their lives made in such a way that you can always grasp but perhaps not completely articulate. Lonesome Dove moves, it thrills, and it does so in an unpretentious fashion. In short, which is perhaps not a term really applicable to Lonesome Dove, it’s some very fine writing.