There aren’t many gigantic books that I tear through the way I have done with Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize winner Lonesome Dove, over and over again. I absolutely cannot get enough of this book. Just when I think I’m done with it, I see it sitting on the shelf, calling to me, and I grab it and one weekend later, we’ve finished again. I am a fan of Westerns in general, but this is about way more than a western.
It is about the characters and the story. I have never met characters I enjoy more than Captains Gus and Call. Even the TV miniseries, which usually make me cringe when they’re announced, is wonderful.
If you aren’t familiar with the story, here we go.
Lonesome Dove is a small town in Texas. It’s dusty. It is populated by cowboys, ranchers, their families, and the sorts of women who work upstairs in saloons. Gus McRae and Woodrow Call are retired Texas Rangers who spent a great deal of their careers fighting Indians. Loneseome is chronologically the third book in a series of four, although it was published first.
They decide to take their cattle on a drive up to Montana. That’s the plot in a nutshell. It’s a long way up to Montana and a lot happens on the way. But more important, to me at least is who it happens to.
Gus and Call are as fully realized as characters have ever been. The reason the book works so well is because it was impossible for me not to care about the people in the story.
Gus is a fun-loving womanizer who, while he is certainly capable of working hard, would rather not. He has been married twice and neither time has been to the love of his life Clara. In the movie, Gus is played by Robert Duvall and Clara is played by Anjelica Houston, both are perfect for their parts. Picture Duvall at his liveliest and that’s Gus.
He acts like a fool and is then thunderstruck every time something goes wrong with his relationships. There is a scene of him being so astonished at one point that he gets on his horse backwards. I promise, it will seem funny by the time you get to it.
Also, it’s hard not to like someone who says things like, “It’s a little early to go wigglin’ you bean, ain’t it Jake?”
When he is not drinking or pestering women, Gus likes to harass his partner.
He was played by Tommy Lee Jones for a reason. Picture Mr. Jones at his crankiest, throw in a white beard and a cattle drive, an old enemy named Blue Duck, and a son that he knows is his but can’t admit to, and you’ve got Call.
He is usually very calm, but when his temper erupts–and this is the case across all four books–it is spectacular. He nearly beats a guy to death when he sees him whipping his son with a riding crop. By the time Gus drags him off–it takes throwing a rope around him and dragging away with a horse–the guy is nearly gone and there is a newly blood-stained anvil.
When he is standing again, all that Call says is “I can’t abide rudeness in a man.” You know what’s awesome. That’s awesome.
The other characters
This is a big book, and every other character in it is as vivid as the main duo. I can’t go into them all, but let me say that Larry McMurtry is very skilled at making the good guys very good–and the bad guys are as bad as you could want.
There are some incredible scenes as well. A locust storm, a night mission to rescue the woman who travels with the cattle drive after she is captured by Indians, the final encounter with Blue Duck…I could go on and on. Maybe I will.
What I will be doing is reviewing the other three books. None of them are the equal of Lonesome Dove, but that’s all right–nothing could be. If you’re intrigued, here they are:
- Dead Man’s Walk (Gus and Call are new to the ranger troop in the middle of extremely hostile Indian territory)
- Comanche Moon (Older, in positions of authority, still fighting the Indians)
- Lonesome Dove
- Streets of Laredo (I won’t talk about this one because it will spoil something)
When I say I read Lonesome Dove every year, I’m not lying. When I say that it gets better every year, I’m double not-lying.
Have you read it? Are you going to? Thoughts? Have you ever been in a locust storm? Me either.
PS: The movie is really good, but don’t watch it before you read it.
PPS: It also has a great soundtrack.
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