Lonesome Dove is Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the Old West. It’s one of the very finest works of fiction written by a twentieth century American author, and one of my all-time favorite books.
I’ve never been a huge fan of Western novels. When I was a teenager, I read a few books by Zane Gray and Louis L’Amour, all of which I found pretty dull and boring. None of the books written by these authors were able to provide me with the kind of intellectual challenge I craved, and none of them were able to hold my attention for very long.
Not so Lonesome Dove! This novel, so very well written by Larry McMurtry, is unlike any other Western novel I’ve ever read. It’s grittily realistic; written with painstaking attention to detail; and filled with brilliantly conceived plots and subplots. It’s intellectually challenging enough to hold any reader’s attention from first page to last. And it’s imbued with some of the most memorable characters ever to grace the pages of a work of fiction.
Captain Augustus McCrae: Former Texas Ranger, and co-owner (with Captain Woodrow Call) of the “Hat Creek Cattle Company and Livery Emporium.” Originally from Tennessee, Gus is very lazy, garrulous, and has an opinion (usually very loudly spoken) on just about everything. But he’s also a man with a keen intellect, an inquisitive mind, and a heart of gold. Even in late middle age, he’s still possessed with enough libido and sexual prowess to keep him regularly visiting the town’s only “sportin’ woman.”
Captain Woodrow Call: Former Texas Ranger and partner of Gus McCrae. Born in Scotland, he’s the driving force behind the “Hat Creek Cattle Company and Livery Emporium.” An intense and yet reserved man, he brooks no nonsense from anyone… including Gus. Surprisingly, when Jake Spoon proposes a scheme to drive a herd of cattle north to Montana, it is the stolid, well-grounded Woodrow, and not Gus, who succumbs to wanderlust…
Lorena Wood: Lonesome Dove’s only “sporting woman;” young (twenty-four), attractive, and, despite being a working member of the “world’s oldest profession,” the object of the affections of many of Lonesome Dove’s male citizens. Her decision to travel north with the cattle drive unleashes a spate of jealous broils between several men enamored of her…
Dishwater (Dish) Boggett: A young, dreamy-eyed cowboy. Not a lick of ambition in them bones of his, but, to win the hand of the fair Lorena, he’ll do anything… including joining the arduous trek north to Montana. How will Dish behave on the cattle drive, knowing that the object of his desires is nearby…?
Jake Spoon: Former Texas Ranger and ex-partner of Gus and Call. A slick, smooth talker and habitual gambler. When he pays an unexpected visit to his old friends, he brings with him a money-making scheme that will turn everyone’s lives upside down. He also brings with him a dark secret from his recent past…
Newt Dobbs: The youngest of the “Hat Creek Cattle Company” boys. Young and impressionable, he worships the legendary Jake Spoon (whom he thinks might be his father) from afar. When his hero suddenly turns up, will he be able to maintain the sense of responsibility so carefully nurtured in him by a lifetime with Gus and Woodrow…?
July Johnson: The young sheriff of Fort Smith, Arkansas. While visiting Fort Smith, Jake Spoon accidentally kills a man during a poker game. July reluctantly begins a journey to track him down and bring him back to face charges. But his trip soon takes an unexpected and dangerous twist. During his travels, he will cross paths with Gus and Call and the “Hat Creek Cattle Company…” with tragic results for all.
Clara Allen: once the great love of Gus McCrae’s life. Thirty years earlier, she had turned down Gus’s marriage proposal. Now she’s the wife of a successful horse rancher in Nebraska. When Gus pays a sudden visit, old passions are renewed…
Blue Duck: Half white man, half Native American… and every ounce a fierce and blood-thirsty barbarian. His pathological hatred of all white men, and especially Woodrow Call and Gus McCrae, lead him and his followers to begin a sanguinary crime spree throughout the desert southwest. How will he react when he learns that Gus and Call have begun a cattle drive north to Montana?
These and other memorable characters – Pea Eye Parker, Josh Deets, Dan Suggs and his brothers Roy and Eddie, Lippy Jones, Xavier Wanz, among them – bring sharply into focus the brilliant color, fabric, and texture of life in the Old West of the 1870s.
Lonesome Dove is a genuine literary masterpiece – certainly one of the finest novels I’ve ever read. It’s a sometimes bloody and violent examination of life in the Old West of the late nineteenth century. For several years, Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call have lived the quiet life in the small south Texas town of Lonesome Dove. These two middle-aged ex-Texas Rangers have settled into an uneventful, bucolic existence running a hardscrabble business called the “Hat Creek Cattle Company and Livery Emporium.” (Actually, it’s Call who does most of the running of the business and Gus who does most of the running of his mouth.) Despite their disparate personalities, these two men have remained friends for years.
A small crew of long-time friends (also former Texas Rangers) lives and works with Call and Gus. Pea Eye Parker, Josh Deets, Dish Boggett, and young Newt Dobbs are loyal, hard-working men with simple desires. For them, life revolves around Lonesome Dove, the Dry Bean Saloon, and Lorena Wood, the town’s only “sporting woman.” It seems like everyone is destined to live and work out their lives, then die, in the same spot… “…a heaven for snakes and horned toads, and a hell for pigs and Tennesseans.”
…Until Jake Spoon suddenly pays a visit to Gus and Call. After an absence of several years, this smooth-talking former Texas Ranger (and former partner of Gus and Call) comes armed with a “get-rich-quick” scheme: drive a herd of cattle north to Montana, then set up a cattle ranch there. Gus and Call are amazed. Why would their friend, who’s more accustomed to fine clothes, “sporting women,” and the gaming tables of local saloons, want to abandon his “good life” in favor of a highly risky and arduous journey north? Surprisingly, it is Woodrow Call, and not Gus McCrae who’s all in favor of picking up stakes and setting out for Montana.
The majority of Lonesome Dove takes place on the cattle drive north. Read this magnificent book to find out: how well does Lorena adjust to life on the trail? How do her many male admirers react to her presence? How will the ferociously savage Blue Duck react when he learns that his old adversaries, Gus and Call, have abandoned their safe haven in Lonesome Dove and are on the road? And what must Gus and Call do when confronted by their implacable foe?
Meanwhile, in a small town in Arkansas, a young sheriff sets out on a trip to capture Jake Spoon, fugitive from justice. Accompanying him is his stepson, Joe. Not long after July and Joe leave, July’s wife, Elmira also departs. She’s on a quest in search of her long lost love, Dee Boot. What does July do when he learns that Elmira has disappeared? What happens when he crosses paths with Gus and Call and Jake Spoon and the rest of the Hat Creek outfit?
There are simply not enough superlatives to do complete justice to Lonesome Dove. Larry McMurtry – a natural storyteller if ever there is one – crams every page with beautifully descriptive passages, intensely emotional situations and fast-paced action. His characters are wonderfully drawn… the heroes are easy to like, and the villains easy to despise. Yet, the heroes are never too heroic; they always have a flaw or two to point out their human frailty. The villains, despicably evil, still manage to show an occasional faint glimmer of something that makes them seem “human.”
I was completely captivated by Larry McMurtry’s writing style. His mellifluous prose is rich, deeply textured, and abounding with great detail; McMurtry does a nice job of keeping things realistic and believable. Never once does he allow his multi-faceted story to descend into overwrought romanticism, hyperbole, or floridity. His descriptions of people, places, and situations is so realistic, so clear and vivid that, as I read along, it seemed I could almost hear his characters’ voices and see the actions and places he describes.
MY VERDICT:Lonesome Dove is simply an excellent read – alternately comic and tragic; romantic and hard-boiled; poignant and violent; this novel is always fast paced, witty, and highly entertaining. Lovers of fiction, whether or not they like Western novels, will enjoy this book. Highly recommended!