Lonesome Dove Unravels The Myth of The American West

Hello, everyone! I’ve read a lot of novels in my shortish life, but few of them have remained in my thoughts as constantly as Larry McMurtry’s iconic Western Lonesome Dove. Set in the 1870s, the novel spends a fateful year with Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call, two former Texas Rangers who decide to embark on a cattle drive from their dusty little ranch in Texas, to the wild, unknown country of Montana. The novel is epic in size and scope, but incredibly intimate in the way it describes the deepest dreams and bitter regrets of dozens of characters. It’s a novel about the death of a culture and a way of life, and a story that takes the myth of The Great American West and boils it down to its most human and heartbreaking essence. And it’s a book that ends so abruptly, and with so little fanfare, that you might throw it off the bed in anger when you finish. I finished the book for the second time yesterday, and my head is still full of that world. There are no easy endings in Lonesome Dove, and no easy way to stop thinking about such a story.

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Gus and Call banter in the TV miniseries

Like all myths, The Great American West is a story we as a nation tell ourselves to feel better about our complicated past. Lonesome Dove is an exploration of that myth, and a clash between the characters who seem ripped straight out of a fairytale, and the harsh realities of the world that they live in. On the surface, Gus and Call are two such mythological creatures. Both renowned rangers, they’ve helped “settle” Texas by ridding the country of horse thieves, Native Americans, and Mexicans, and with no more reason to fight, have resigned themselves to an easy life of cattle ranching in the small town of Lonesome Dove. Gus and Call are everything that history and pop culture have taught us to revere in men: courageous, combative, intelligent, and skilled with a weapon. Both men pride themselves on their principles, even if they differ when it comes to their essential life philosophies. We spend almost a hundred pages with these two men, watching them banter and bicker like an old married couple, before they even set off on their life-changing journey. By the time they leave their home, it feels like we’ve known them both forever, and know exactly how they will fare on the way to Montana, but even before they go, McMurtry hints at the unraveling of their life as they’ve come to know it.

This unraveling comes in the form of Jake Spoon, another former Texas Ranger and one of the men’s closest colleagues. Jake is a classic American hero, too, but in a different sense. He’s a smooth operator, a womanizer, and a cardsharp, a man known for his easygoing humor, and not for his sense of commitment. When Jake arrives in Lonesome Dove, after having accidentally shot a man to death, he’s welcomed with open arms. He puts down stakes, instantly winning the affections of Lorena, the town’s only sex-worker, and restarting his life of leisure. And when Jake Spoon mentions the beautiful open lands of Montana, no one pays him a second thought. No one except for Call, whose sudden decision to pack up and move the ranch to Montana alters their lives forever.

This impulsive decision on the part of a man renowned for his prudence is the first of many omens warning the men against embarking on this journey. But against Gus’ reluctance, Call decides to go, bringing with him a ragtag band of men including his loyal compadres Pea Eye and Deets, teenaged Newt, whom Gus and Call have raised since boyhood, and Jake and Lorena, who is determined to make Jake take her to San Francisco. All of these people place their lives in the hands of Gus and Call, but from the very beginning, nothing goes to plan. Characters meet their deaths in sudden and unexpected ways. Old enemies stumble into their path, and even in the vastest, most unsettled part of the whole continent, Gus and Call are forced to fight against evil and depravity. And still, they keep going towards Montana, a prize that seems less and less worthwhile with every step they take.

As I was re-reading this novel, I was struck by how strongly McMurtry relies on fate to direct the lives of his characters. If a character died, no matter how random or in how cruel a fashion that death came, further reading showed that it was inescapable. Take the deaths of Joe, Janey, and Roscoe, for instance. Companions of July Johnson, the sheriff enlisted to capture Jake Spoon, they serve as light comedic fodder for the first third of the novel. Joe and Janey are both children, both abandoned by their parents and left to fend for themselves, while Roscoe is July’s bumbling, but kind deputy. A ragtag bunch, they each come to love and trust one another, and when each of them gets a chance to leave, with Joe being offered a job as a cattle hand, Janey being offered a place with a woman in town, and Roscoe being offered marriage, they choose to stay. Those decisions lead to their violent and untimely deaths, and after reading that scene, it’s impossible not to wonder what would have happened to them if they had chosen to leave July.

McMurtry makes a point of answering that for us later, when the man that offered Joe a job is killed by horse-thieves. Even though he doesn’t give other “what-ifs” for Janey and Roscoe, his inclusion of that scene is evident of the hand of fate in the lives of his characters. Joe was meant to die, in some way or another, and upon realizing that, it becomes difficult to see the random deaths of many other characters as anything less than destiny. Gus explicitly says as much, when he and Call are forced to hang Jake Spoon later in the novel, remarking that if Jake hadn’t suggested the idea of Montana, he never would have been hanged. Every choice that the characters make, no matter how insignificant, comes back to haunt them.The decision to follow a dream leads all of the men into hell, and none of them come out unscathed.

McMurtry’s plots are tied so tightly that they might have been spun from The Fates themselves. If he were only a master architect, Lonesome Dove would still be a remarkable book, but his ability to weave such a complex tapestry of a story, and still have the ability to give life to every little knot within is what makes him an unparalleled author. He understands and empathizes with everyone in his novel, from the shining principals, to the bit players. The most exasperating part of reading Lonesome Dove is that Larry McMurtry never slips up, not once, in having his characters act like their truest selves. Although his characters evolve and have fully-realized arcs, they are only human, and restricted by man’s inherent resistance to change. The most depressing example of this is Woodrow Call, who, even after a thousand mile journey and the loss of his dearest friend, will not claim ownership of his son Newt. Call is the character who inwardly changes the most through the novel, as his constant conviction in his own righteousness is eroded away by his astronomical misjudgment in deciding to come to Montana. But even with this realization, he retains his stubbornness, unable to admit a lifetime of mistakes to Newt, and unable to come to terms with his own fallibility. He is the last of the Lonesome Dove men that we see in the novel, and he ends the story much as he began it; unable to see the worth and power of someone that he has deemed insignificant. To end a novel on such an anti-climactic note is a bold move on McMurtry’s part, but it’s the necessary punctuation for a novel that takes a myth and erodes it piece by piece, until nothing remains but dust.

Stories about the Great American West are often dominated by men, and while Lonesome Dove is a story about cowboys, it’s also a story about the women who played an as equally prominent role in the West’s development. Lorena, Clara, and Elmira are the novel’s principal female characters, shaping the course of the novel as they draw the men on fatefully intersecting paths. Lorena, emotionally detached after a lifetime of abuse at the hands of men, chooses Jake as the man who can take her on the cattle drive in hopes of going to San Francisco, thus setting Jake on his path towards his eventual death. In the process, she learns to trust Gus, the only man who loves her for more than the things she can give him. Clara, Gus’ lifetime love, inspires him to join the cattle drive in the first place, and leads the crew towards her home in Nebraska. And Elmira, the runaway wife of July Johnson, leads the reluctant sheriff on a miserable journey, only for him to end up right where he belongs.

The women of Lonesome Dove are given the same room as the men to be frustrating and complicated. Their actions spur the actions of the male characters, but their existences are never dependent on those men. And while the women are loved by these men, for good reasons and bad, they are never forced to love them back. The portrayal of Lorena, especially, is so refreshing because of how completely she refuses to be a prize for the moon-eyed cowboys who keep falling at her feet. When she does find love, it’s surprising and unconventional, and for the novel, completely in character. Love is a tricky thing in Lonesome Dove, not sweeping or passionate, but rooted in loyalty, respect, and obligation. It’s also not limited to romantic love, as McMurtry takes time to flesh out the platonic relationships between the men in the novel, especially the co-dependent relationship between Gus and Call.

In telling the story of the American West, McMurtry would have been remiss not to include the stories of the people who first lived there. Native Americans are an ever present backdrop to the novel, discussed with fear and respect, but rarely seen in the flesh. Blue Duck, the only Native American character to feature prominently in the novel, is the story’s primary villain, a man so cruel and violent that he seems, at times, to be inhuman. Blue Duck never gets the same complexity as the other characters in the book, but McMurtry does balance out his villainy by painting other native characters as abstractly peaceful. We seem them only at a distance, which makes sense given the perspective of our main characters, who aside from Deets and Po Campo are uniformly white men. This distance can be frustrating to read from a modern perspective, and I think the book would have benefitted from including the perspective of the Native American characters, especially at the end, when they are responsible for one of the most impactful deaths of the book. While McMurtry doesn’t paint them as the “enemy,” he does paint them as the inscrutable “other,” which feels out of place in an otherwise empathetic novel.

At its core, Lonesome Dove is a novel about the fin de siècle of the Great American West. It’s set in the 1870s, when the Native Americans had been beaten down into obscurity and the unsettled land was beginning its transformation into the West that we know today. The men spend the story grappling with their fading importance in a place that no longer needs them. A mournful air pervades the novel, with heroic acts of courage overshadowed by the harsh realities of daily life. Even the mercurial weather of the open plains, with its draining heat, blinding dust storms, and locust plagues, plays its own role in dismantling the idea of the majestic open country that we’ve seen in movies. Like the characters who cross it, the West in Lonesome Dove is dealing with the end of one era and the beginning of the next. So many stories of the West see it as a nostalgic fixed place, but McMurtry sees it as a living creature, as restless and inchoate as the people who populate it. By setting his characters in a time and place immersed in its own evolution, McMurtry created the defining Western novel of the 20th century.

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