Call me crazy, but I’m not going to recommend a “beach” book – the traditional sort of literary fluff with the staying power of a marshmallow one might normally choose for summer reading. To make matters worse, the novel I’m going to urge you to tuck into is 30 years old, and the paperback edition has the heft and dimensions of a brick. But often, as is the case with Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove,” the oldies are truly the goodies, and this splendid book will provide you with more sustenance and enjoyment than a plate of chuck wagon beans.
Although published first, “Lonesome Dove” is chronologically the third of four books that span more than 50 years of Texas history. If you have a ton of time on your hands, you could begin with the prequels, “Dead Man’s Walk” and “Comanche Moon,” and end with the sequel, “Streets of Laredo,” but I say go for the gold and dig into “Lonesome Dove” first. It is a tale of epic proportions, and like any great epic, is all about heroes struggling against almost insurmountable odds to pursue quests that are either self-created or thrust upon them. The main quest in “Lonesome Dove” centers on the search for what gives life meaning, but the many sub-plots, each interesting in its own right, concern other kinds of searches.
Set in the post-Civil War era of the 1870s, “Lonesome Dove” finds Gus McCrea and Woodrow Call, the two characters whose adventures dominate the entire saga, middle-aged and retired from the Texas Rangers. They are eking out a ho-hum existence as co-owners of the Hat Creek Cattle Company just outside the dusty, one-saloon town of Lonesome Dove. Their “business,” if you can call it that, consists of sneaking across the Rio Grande and rounding up cattle and horses to sell.
Gus is a gregarious, laid-back guy, and seems perfectly content to spend the rest of his life indulging in his three favorite pastimes: drinking, playing cards, and, as he puts it, “poking” the town’s single prostitute, a charming young woman named Lorena Wood. Call, on the other hand, has not settled happily into retirement. A serious, hard-working loner, he and Gus could not be more different. True to his name, Call is a man of action and desperately misses the bygone days when his adventures with the Texas Rangers gave his life meaning. Throughout the book, Gus provides the comic relief, and Call, the gravitas.
When a former Ranger, Jake Spoon, shows up singing the virtues of Montana, Call decides to mount a cattle drive to this last bastion of unsettled land and convinces Gus to join him on the 3,000-mile trek. Joining them are a gaggle of cowhands. Some, like the not-too-bright, but devoted Pea Eye Parker and Josh Deets, a former slave and superb tracker, are former Rangers. Others include both experienced hands and a group of green boys who hire on for the adventure. Also excited by the call to adventure is young Newt Dobbs, an orphan Gus and Call informally adopt after his prostitute mother, Maggie, dies.
Newt deserves special mention, since his is a coming-of-age story. He, too, is on a quest, searching for his unknown father. Eventually, he learns that the man he seeks is none other than Call. Although Maggie had told Call he was the father of her unborn child, and the resemblance between the man and boy is clear to everyone else, Call is never been able to bring himself to acknowledge Newt as his son. The closest her ever comes is to eventually give Newt his favorite horse, “the Hell-Bitch.”
While the cattle drive forms the main plot of the novel, it is enriched by several deftly interwoven subplots that introduce even more eccentric, but very believable, characters, including the murderous outlaw, Blue Duck, who kidnaps Lorena. Then there’s July Johnson, the young and irritatingly naïve sheriff of Fort. Smith, Arkansas. July is trying to track down both his runaway wife, Elmira, and Jake Spoon, who is wanted for the murder of a Fort Smith man. Finally, there’s Clara Allen, the strong, no-nonsense woman Gus has loved for 30 years. Although she rejected his many proposals in favor of a less adventurous husband, Clara and Gus have remained friends. The entwined stories of these and many other wonderful characters are played out in a bleak and unforgiving landscape, where ineptitude and just plain bad luck can be fatal, and only the strongest and luckiest survive.
“Lonesome Dove” is no tale for the faint-of-heart. The violence and cruelty of the land and many of the people who live on it can be gut-wrenching, but the horrors are leavened with humor and beauty. At the book’s end, the characters may not have found the illusive grails they seek. What matters, ultimately, is that they never stop trying, and that is what makes them heroic and well worth knowing.