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Calling Lonesome Dove Home

In the category of guilty pleasures–or maybe just sheepish pleasures–I’d place Larry McMurtry’s
Lonesome Dove
as one of the finest novels of the last quarter of the twentieth century. On first reading the novel just a couple of years after it won the Pulitzer Prize, I was impressed by its breadth and depth as well as the judicious manner in which McMurtry can evoke a powerful scene. Plenty of writers can describe and tell a story, but few of them can outperform McMurtry at his best for making the choices that neither overwrite nor underwrite the moment. The early passage, in which the Hat Creek crew head to Mexico to steal horses and cattle only to encounter a Mexican group returning south with a stolen American herd, complete with stampeding animals and powerful lightning captivates like few other action sequences I have ever read. This scene, by the way, proved a powerful disappointment in the 1988 miniseries adaptation.

Besides standing as a powerful Western novel, Lonesome Dove makes more strait-laced readers cringe with its frank portrayal of prostitution, wanton drinking, and thoughtless killing. McMurtry has no problem describing an American West at least as gritty and immoral as it truly was.

As I revisit this novel, I’m struck by the multiple themes of home and satisfaction. Gus and Woodrow find themselves perched on the edge of the United States, at home in Lonesome Dove but hardly feeling at rest. For Gus, the call of his old love Clara continues to beckon, despite the charms of Lorie and other prostitutes with whom he has spent his time and money. Woodrow feels so unsettled that he takes up vigil every night on the Rio Grande and requires only a moment’s incitement from the notoriously unreliable Jake before gathering a herd to make his way to Montana.

Lorie stands convinced that she could be happy if only taken away somewhere new, either by Jake or by Gus. Clara has created a home and life, satisfying and permanent for herself in Nebraska, sweeping several of the other characters into that life as the story progresses.

July Johnson, homeless in his home town, sets off in search of his runaway wife, who has set off in search of her true love, many miles away. When she rejects July and is killed, he finds himself completely at loose ends, requiring very little persuasion to remain in the employ of Clara.

The two Irish boys, homesick for mother and for their motherland, stand as obvious examples of those dissatisfied with their present home. They cross the Atlantic, find themselves misplaced in Mexico, join up with the Hat Creek group for want of anything better to do, and attempt to find themselves a place.

Perhaps most significant to the entire home motif is Gus extracting a promise from Woodrow to return Gus’ body to Texas for burial.

I could go on with examples of characters misplaced and dissatisfied, desperately attempting to get themselves somewhere that they believe will be better, that they believe will satisfy hearts yearning for significance, love, and fulfillment. And these strivings and dissatisfactions are not an altogether consistent lot. Without them, the world of the novel would be immensely less interesting.

Lonesome Dove is not simply a Western novel. It is a novel of human existence. Those who are alive in this story find themselves seeking for something, unhappy with what they have. This is, absent God, the human condition. The general antipathy in the book for farmers, those who settle down in one place and make what they have better, underscores the epidemic of unsettledness.

Posted in American Literature, Contemporary.

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