Lonesome Dove (1985), by Larry McMurtry, is the most critically acclaimed western. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1986 and is McMurtry’s magnum opus. More literary fiction in a western setting than a cowboys-and-Indians romp, Lonesome Dove tells the story of two ageing ex-Texas Rangers who lead a cattle drive from south Texas to the wilderness of Montana. It examines friendship, love and death through a host of larger-than-life yet painfully realistic characters. Texas Monthly calls it the state’s hero myth.
Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call are the co-owners of the Hat Creek Cattle Company and Livery Emporium, renting out horses and cows in the dusty border town of Lonesome Dove. In their youth, they were Texas Ranger captains, who fought Comanches in the state’s frontier days. Now Texas is becalmed, and the buffalo are nearing extinction.
Quick-witted, charming and thoughtful, McCrae spends his days indulging in alcohol and prostitutes while pining for an old flame who married a horse trader twenty years before.
Woodrow Call is a tough and determined leader of men, with an iron sense of duty. He is stubborn and pragmatic but socially inept, particularly around women, and refuses to face his past mistakes.
McMurtry claimed the idea for two opposing men – the pragmatic and the visionary – came from Don Quixote. McCrae is an Epicurean, Call a stoic, and, although they are very different, their many conversations echo those of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
The call to adventure comes from their friend Jake Spoon. After ten years of absense, he appears in Lonesome Dove wanted, having killed a dentist in Fort Smith. Spoon tales of unclaimed land persuade Call and McCrae to leave Lonesome Dove and bring two thousand cattle to the last frontier. They hire a team of cowboys and set off.
The novel follows a host of characters including wistful whores, naïve sheriffs and sadistic bandits. The plotting is excellent. McMurtry’s narration is omniscient, slipping in and out of characters thoughts and opinions with ease. His dialogue and characterisation are superb, and often hilarious. The characters are not mere archetypes or cliches but bring a host of quirks and insecurities to the table – many with crippling emotional depth.
Larry McMurtry, 2000:
“It’s hard to go wrong if one writes at length about the Old West, still the phantom leg of the American psyche. I thought I had written about a harsh time and some pretty harsh people, but, to the public at large, I had produced something nearer to an idealization; instead of a poor man’s Inferno, filled with violence, faithlessness and betrayal, I had actually delivered a kind of Gone With The Wind of the West, a turnabout I’ll be mulling over for a long, long time.”
Lonesome Dove does not paint the romantic picture of the Old West, so loved in the genre, nor does it indulge in hellish depictions in the vein of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, though there is violence aplenty. Instead, McMurtry paints the Frontier as-is: a time of adventure and possibility, but also immense hardship and cruelty. The innocents suffer most.
McMurtry wrote one sequel – Streets of Laredo (1989) and two prequels; Dead Man’s Walk (1995) and Comanche Moon (1997). I have read the latter, which is nearly as good and features more of the Native American perspective.
Larry McMurtry of Archer City, Texas (1936 – 2021) – who later co-wrote Brokeback Mountain – began Lonesome Dove in 1972 as a screenplay. He sold the rights to Universal Pictures. The leads he envisioned, however – John Wayne and James Stewart – rejected the script. Twelve years later, McMurtry bought back the rights for $35,000 and rewrote it as a book. The gamble paid off – Lonesome Dove was an immediate success and spent 52 weeks on the bestseller list.
In 1989, CBS adapted Lonesome Dove as a TV miniseries starring Robert Duval as Augustus McCrae, Tommy Lee Jones as Woodrow Call, Diana Lane as Lorena and Donald Glover as Deets. The script maintained much of the book’s dialogue and was nominated for 18 Emmies, winning seven. It revived both the Western genre and the miniseries format. Four adaptations of the Lonesome Dove tetralogy followed but were subpar.
Standing at 843 pages, Lonesome Dove is one of those rare books which is easy to read while bearing literary clout. It is among the best books I have read, and will likely read again.
Sources: Texas Monthly