Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

I read Lonesome Dove for the first time the winter of 2004. It was my first winter in Montana. I was cold. I was off for six weeks vacation from school. I was sober. Besides going to the gym, I really had no life and I was jobless and slightly depressed. I went to the Missoula library and wandered the dim, dusty, musty-smelling aisles until I chanced upon Larry McMurtry.

Years before, I had a boyfriend who told me over and over again how Lonesome Dove was one of the best books he’d ever read. I can’t say I disbelieved him or anything, but I thought: Oh, that stupid cowboy book?

Ok. I guess I said it out loud.

He assured me it was anything but, and here I was, like six years later, finally picking it up and giving it a try.

I stayed in my room for the next four days and read it straight through. I went through every emotion and every character. I laughed. I cried. I wept. I fell so in love with this book and it’s characters that when it was over, I was both humbled and dazed.

I’d like to formerly apologize to my ex.

Mikey, I apologize. You were right, damn you. (But I’m still not watching The Godfather. I mean, really. That stupid gangster movie?)

This is one of the best books I have ever read. It is 944 pages long and every page of it is wonderful.

Augustus and Woodrow Call have been Texas Rangers since they were teenagers. They have a beautiful friendship. Gus is fond of his own voice and good company. Woodrow prefers to ride the open range alone and commune with the night. He doesn’t say things well. (He can’t express himself, but somehow he tugs at my heart more than Gus. Everyone loves Gus, but Call gets to me.)

Lonesome Dove is a little town in Texas. Augustus and Woodrow have settled down after spending most of their adult lives fighting Indians, Mexican bandits and outlaws. They have set up shop running a livery stable called the Hat Creek Cattle Company, and life has become pretty quiet.

Gus is smart, eloquent, funny and easy-going. Call is serious, silent and hard-working. Call ( and Gus) can be summarized roughly in the following passage:

“He came to the river because he liked to be alone for an hour, and not always be crowded. It seemed to him that he was pressed from dawn till dark, but for no good reason. As a Ranger captain he was naturally pressed to make decisions – and decisions might mean life or death to the men under him. That had been a natural pressure – one that went with the job. Men looked to him, and kept looking, wanting to know he was still there, able to bring them through whatever scrape they might be in. Augustus was just as capable, beneath all his rant, and would have got them through the same scrapes if it had been necessary, but Augustus wouldn’t bother rising to the occasion until it became absolutely necessary. He left the worrying to Call – so the men looked to Call for orders, and got drunk with Augustus.”

The very thing that is so beautiful about these two is their opposite personalities. The very fact that McMurtry has expertly put them together and then put them through hell, (in the earlier books) so they come out on the other side with a loyalty to each other that surpasses any other tie sets up the story marvelously. It is a dominant theme in the book. Friendship. Loyalty.

There’s a whole crapload of characters in this book and I can’t even begin to cover them all.

Newt is a young boy and Call’s illegitimate son, whom he won’t acknowledge because the boy had a whore for a mother and this goes against Call’s personal code of conduct.
(Its the most frustrating thing about Call, the fact that he wont bend and admit that he really was in love with Maggie the poor whore who died years before…and he wont admit that the kid is his and give him his last name. All through the book, you want to throw something at Call, even while you admire him for his courage and his control.)

Deets and Pea-Eye are the most lovable characters. They have both been with Gus and Call for years, rangering with them and working with them. They aren’t the brightest, but they are the most entertaining. I enjoy how McMurtry creates these characters according to the era. In 187o something or other, most cowboys would have had very little formal education, and it shows. He gives them just enough knowledge that they would be expected to know, but he doesn’t make them too insightful or anything. It is what makes them real. There is a moment when Deets’s name is to be carved onto the Hat Creek Cattle Co. sign and Gus admonishes him that most people have two names.

“Well, Deets, you just got one name,” Augustus said.”Most people got two. Maybe you’ve got two and just forgot one of them.”
Deets sat around thinking for a day or two, but he could not remember ever having another name, and Call’s recollection bore him out. At that point even Augustus began to think that the sign was more trouble than it was worth, since it was turning out to be so hard to please everyone. The only solution was to think up another name to go with Deets, but while they were debating various possibilities, Deets’s memory suddenly cleared.
“Josh,” he said, one night after supper, to the surprise of everyone. “Why, I’m Josh. Can you write that Mr. Gus?”
“Josh is short for Joshua,” Augustus said.”I can write either one of them. Joshua’s the longest.”
“Write the longest,” Deets said.”I’m too busy for a short name.”

Lorena is the sole whore of Lonesome Dove. Abused and exploited by various men since she was a girl, Lorie ends up in Lonesome Dove at the Dry Bean Saloon. She’s a kind of hopeless character, tired of whoring, but not wanting to marry because of her bad taste in men. She would like to get to San Francisco, where whores can make a lot of cash, but until Jake Spoon arrives in town, she doesn’t see any way to get there.

So along comes the no-good outlaw Jake. He has recently killed a man (accidentally) and has come to Lonesome Dove to look up his old friends and fellow Texas Rangers. He is charming, reckless and thoughtless. He treats the beautiful Lorie nicely, so that she falls in love for a time, but when she wants him to take her away, Jake ignores her and begins to think shes getting a bit too serious.

When Jake starts talking about Montana and how there’s still wild land up there and wild times to be had, Woodrow Call gets excited (even though he’s very subtle about it) and he decides to drive cattle the 2500 miles to Montana and take a bunch of guys along – most of them teenagers and, sadly, the bulk of them don’t know squat about driving cattle.

For Woodrow and Augustus, Texas Rangering life is over. The West of their youth is finished with the railroad bringing more and more people every day. The only life they have ever known, finding enemies and killing them to protect settlers has ended, and Call, not the over-analytical type, feels sad without really knowing why. Here is the moment when one of their enemies of thirty years, Pedro Flores, has suddenly died. I like this bit because it shows the dynamic between Gus and Call, and highlights Gus’s teasing sense of humor.

To Augustus’s surprise, Call sat down on the porch and took a big swallow from the jug. He felt curious – not sick, but suddenly empty – it was the way a kick in the stomach could make you feel. It was an odd thing, but true, that the death of an enemy could affect you almost as much as the death of a friend. He had experienced it before, when news reached them that Kicking Wolf was dead. Some young soldier on his second patrol had made a lucky shot and killed him, on the Clear Fork of the Brazos – and Kicking Wolf had kept two companies of Rangers busy for twenty years. Killed by a private. Call had been shoeing a horse when Pea brought him that piece of news, and he had felt so empty for a spell that he had to put off finishing the job.
That had been ten years ago, and he and Gus soon quit rangering. So far as Call was concerned, the death of Kicking Wolf meant the end of the Comanches, and thus the end of their real job…
…”I didn’t know you liked that old bandit so much,” Augustus said.
“I didn’t like him,” Call said. “I just didn’t expect him to die.”
“He probably never expected it neither,” Augustus said.”He was a rough old cob.”
After a few minutes, the empty feeling passed, but Call didn’t get to his feet. The sense that he needed to hurry, which had been with him most of his life, had disappeared for a space.
“We might as well go on to Montana,” he said. “The fun’s over around here.”
Augustus snorted, amused by the way his friend’s mind worked.
“Call, there never was no fun around here,” he said. “And besides, you never had no fun in your life. You wasn’t made for fun. That’s my department.”
“I used the wrong word, I guess,” Call said.
“Yes, but why did you?” Augustus said.”That’s the interesting part.”
Call didn’t feel like getting drawn into an argument, so he kept quiet.
“First you’ve run out of Indians, now you’ve run out of bandits, that’s the point,” Augustus said. “You’ve got to have somebody to outwit, don’t you?”
“I don’t know why I need anybody when I’ve got you,” Call said.
“I don’t see why we just don’t take over northern Mexico, now that Pedro’s dead,” Augustus said. “It’s just down the dern street. I’m sure there’s still a few folks down there who’d give you a fight.”
“I don’t need a fight,” said Call. “It won’t hurt us to make some money.”
“It might,” Augustus said. “I might drown in the Republican River, like the Pumphrey boy. Then you’d get all the money. You wouldn’t even know how to have fun with it. You’d probably use it to buy gravestones for old bandits you happened to like.”

Gathering together their men and their cows, the guys set out for Montana. They make their way through rivers and valleys and pass by towns of ill repute. The young boys get a taste of the whores and whiskey and Augustus and Call find that their names, once legendary, have been mostly forgotten with the new influx of settlers. They face tough deaths and decisions along the way, losing man after man to one tragic situation after the other. There are moments here that shock and dismay, but that’s what McMurtry does. He doesn’t have characters act the way you think they should. He has them act the way they do.

Lorie, who comes along with Jake but then gets bailed on by that scoundrel, is kidnapped by a particularly evil Indian named Blue Duck, who delights in torture and killing for fun. Gus goes after her and rescues her, forming a bond between he and Lorie for the rest of the book.

Traumatized by her kidnap, Lorena falls in love with Augustus and acts like a wounded puppy the rest of the time she’s with him. She has been raped repeatedly, tortured, nearly scalped, starved and beaten for days, and it leaves her this broken woman, cowering from any man but Gus.

Unfortunately for Lorie, Gus has his own agenda as well. (I mean, does anyone think that Gus really loved Lorie? Or that he just felt sorry for her?)
Despite his many marriages, he’s been in love with the same woman his entire life. Clara Allen (whom he loved “the hardest and the deepest”)lives with her dying husband and young daughters in Nebraska. Since Gus is passing by, he’s determined to stop and see her. The two have a reunion of sorts, with Gus promising to come back after he’s reached Montana and gotten Call settled. He leaves Lorie with Clara and goes off with Call, continuing on their way to Montana.

I love Clara from the instant I meet her. Gus berates her for marrying another man, but she tells him that she couldn’t have faced worrying about him day and night while he went off to fight Indians with his true love, Woodrow Call. (Can someone say Bromance?)

She detests Call as the sort of man who can’t feel anything for family life and is unnatural in his emotional unavailability. Despite losing Gus, she’s made rational choices and created a good life for herself. I admire her fortitude and common sense. When she takes Lorie in, she feels jealous of the bond she sees between Gus and the girl, but her kind heart and sympathy overwhelm such petty emotions and Clara opens her home to the former prostitute to give her the sanctuary she needs. Clara also advises Gus to stay with them, and not go off chasing adventure when he’s too old. But Augustus is loyal to Woodrow and so off they go.

This book is about love. It is about friendship and having someone’s back. It is about owning up to your human failings, and going off on adventures. It is a love story. An adventure story. A tragedy. A comedy. Ultimately the characters live on, even after most of them die senselessly. McMurty always points out the senselessness of death by rotten mistakes. He points out the unfairness of life. He doesn’t gloss it over for you, but he also highlights the things worth living for.

He reminds you of the times when you’ve been so deep down low that you can barely breathe from the pain of how difficult life can be – just living it – day after day.

But then he has you remember why you go on.

And maybe it’s his way of doing all of those things that never fail to both astound me and break my heart all at the same time.

At this point, I don’t want to spoil it by telling you how it all ends. I suppose I will just end this with the command to Read This Book because its really, really, really good.

And then, if you are like me, and weep when you come to the end because there is no more, you’ll be thrilled to know there are three more books about Augustus and Call. Three.

And I haven’t reviewed them yet.


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