I’ve been wanting to read Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove for a while now. Over the years I’ve read many positive reviews from those I trust on Goodreads, so I had a feeling I wouldn’t be disappointed but with Stephen King’s Dark Tower series being as close as I’ve come to reading a western, I found the nearly 1,000 page count of Lonesome Dove daunting. Would I enjoy a western at all? Why start with the biggest one I could find?
Well, as it turns out, that hesitancy was foolishness. Lonesome Dove is an absolutely wonderful novel.
Lonesome Dove mainly follows the Hat Creek Cattle Company and its two owners, Augustus “Gus” McCrae and “Captain” Woodrow Call. After an off-hand remark by an old colleague about the beauty and potential of Montana, Call makes the decision to pack up and move the company north from the Texas-Mexico border. Gus, despite being happy to spend his days drinking and gambling in the sleepy town of Lonesome Dove, agrees to make the trek.
Although the walk to Montana takes up the bulk of the book, the trip doesn’t get started until we’re several hundred pages deep allowing McMurtry to bring in dozens of characters and set the groundwork for what will happen along the trail. A cast made up of outlaws, cowhands, gamblers, drunks, whores and lawmen who will periodically arrive and depart when necessary keeps things moving at a pace that makes the book hard to put down.
McMurtry includes the brutality and grit that goes hand-in-hand with the Wild West. There are deaths here and they are violent and unpleasant, to say the least. It is a world where death lurks around every corner, without the treatments and solutions we take for granted today, events could easily lead to a death sentence in the late 1800s. The novel’s main antagonist, Blue Duck, is as ruthless and memorable an adversary as I can remember. His vicious assaults lead to some of the novel’s most graphic scenes which will stick with me for some time to come.
Despite the large cast, it’s hard to imagine the story being nearly as memorable without Gus and Call. As much as this novel is about the final days of an untamed frontier, it is more about an unbreakable bond between two people. If McMurtry wasn’t able to make me care as deeply about the friendship between these two men as he did, then nothing that would come to happen would be nearly as impactful. Their back and forth is as natural and as effortless as I can imagine dialogue between two characters could possibly be. Gus’ tendency to say the right things when required is invaluable to all who know him and his unmatched wit and sense of humor had me laughing out loud. Call’s stubborn, nose-to-the-grindstone nature often grounds the story and paints a portrait of a man with time for little else than hard work. Although they’re about as different as you can imagine two people being, their loyalty to one another and those who work with them is unmatched.
Outside of the Hat Creek Cattle Company, one of the novel’s central characters, July Johnson, has an arc that brought me to the verge of tears. What happens to this man throughout the book is as brutal and unrelenting a series of events that I can recall. The same can be said for Lorena Wood, who suffers through one of the novel’s most difficult moments leading her to come out the other end a completely different person – and not for the better.
Lonesome Dove is a novel that had me completely absorbed from start to finish. Even though it is quite literally the last place I would want to be, I felt like I was traveling alongside the Hat Creek Cattle Company as they made their way to Montana. Each loss hit me hard as I felt I had come to know these characters deeply and though I had an idea where things would end up, I was not prepared for where McMurtry would take me in those final two hundred pages.
I know the term masterpiece is thrown around a lot, but I can’t think of a more apt word for Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize winning epic.