Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

I really enjoyed this book. I didn’t think I would after the first 50 pages, but it just goes to show you that you can’t judge a 945-page book by its first 50 pages. In the first 50 pages the characters seemed flat and hollow, caricatures of archetypal characters used in a hundred other stories. Most of all, Lorena, the whore with a heart of gold. But McMurtry throws these characters into real tough situations, doesn’t pull any punches, and they grow and mature and you begin to care about them like people. It was amazing. Some excerpts:

Deets liked his work, liked being part of the outfit and having his name on the sign; yet he often felt sad. His main happiness consisted of sitting with his back against the water tank at night, watching the sky and the changing moon.

He had known several men who blew their heads off, and he had pondered it much. It seemed to him it was probably because they could not take enough happiness just from the sky and the moon to carry them over the low feelings that came to all men.

Deets is an interesting character, a black man who is treated as nearly an equal by the cowboys in the Hat Creek Outfit, and respected for his capabilities and dependability by Call and McCrae. His death affects the men severely and, for Newt, it’s practically the last straw.

When they left, he went off dutifully to make his rounds. Augustus hitched the new mules to the new wagon. The streets of San Antonio were silent and empty as they left. The moon was high and a couple of stray goats nosed around the walls of the old Alamo, hoping to find a blade of grass. When they had first come to Texas in the Forties people had talked of nothing but Travis and his gallant losing battle, but the battle had mostly been forgotten and the building neglected.

“Well, Call, I guess they forgot us, like they forgot the Alamo,” Augustus said.

“Why wouldn’t they?” Call asked. “We ain’t been around.”

“That ain’t the reason—the reason is we didn’t die,” Augustus said. “Now Travis lost his fight, and he’ll get in the history books when someone writes up this place. If a thousand Comanches had cornered us in some gully and wiped us out, like the Sioux just done to Custer, they’d write songs about us for a hundred years.”

It struck Call as a foolish remark. “I doubt there was ever a thousand Comanches in one bunch,” he said. “If there had been they would have taken Washington, D.C.”

But the more Augustus thought about the insults they had been offered in the bar—a bar where once they had been hailed as heroes—the more it bothered him.

“I ought to have given that young pup from Mobile a rap or two,” he said.

“He was just scared,” Call said. “I’m sure Tobe will lecture him next time he sees him.”

“It ain’t the pint, Woodrow,” Augustus said. “You never do get the pint.”

“Well, what is it, dern it?” Call asked.

“We’ll be the Indians, if we last another twenty years,” Augustus said. “The way this place is settling up it’ll be nothing but churches and dry-goods stores before you know it. Next thing you know they’ll have to round up us old rowdies and stick us on a reservation to keep us from scaring the ladies.”

“I’d say that’s unlikely,” Call said.

“It’s dern likely,” Augustus said. “If I can find a squaw I like, I’m apt to marry her. The things is, if I’m going to be treated like an Indian, I might as well act like one. I think we spent out best years fighting on the wrong side.”

This is a nice summation of the relationship between Call and McCrae, their opposing philosophies, and a poignant commentary on what happens to the pioneers after civilization doesn’t need them any more. A lot of Lonesome Dove feels like this passage, especially the section at the end when Call is taking McCrae’s body back to Texas to be buried in accordance with McCrae’s wishes. No one understands why Call is doing it. The Hat Creek boys think he’s doing it as an excuse to abandon them, Clara thinks it’s to avoid revealing to Newt that Call is really his father, and the Indians he meets along the way think it must be because McCrae was some kind of holy man and that his remains have magical powers. But the right answer is that Call is doing it because he gave his word that he would, and Call is a man to keep his word, especially when it is given to a man like McCrae.

Blue Duck hobbled the horses, then came and looked down at her. “I got a treatment for women that try to run away,” he said casually. “I cut a little hole in their stomachs and pull out a gut and wrap it around a limb. Then I drag them thirty or forty feet and tie them down. That way they can watch the coyotes come and eat their guts.”

He went back and lay down under a tree, adjusted his saddlebags for a pillow, and was soon asleep.

Blue Duck is another interesting character. Admittedly, he’s a villain in the shallow kind of way of most fictional villains. We never get to know why Blue Duck is evil. He just is, and he is to such a degree that people fear him even after he is dead and refuse to move his body from the stone street where he flung himself to his death rather than be hung. But having said that, Blue Duck also very well represents the divide between the Indian and White cultures, and is a testament to the view that they can never be reconciled, will always be at odds with one another. This passage struck me because of how vivid it is, but also how diabolical. Torturing people in this way, this unimaginable way to a White culture, shocks us, but also gives Blue Duck a ring of authenticity most fictional Indians don’t have. In that way, he is like the Indians in the Leatherstocking Tales, or the Africans in Henderson the Rain King.

While he was thinking about it he nodded for a few minutes—it seemed like a few minutes—asleep with his gun cocked. He had a little dream about the wild pigs, not too frightening. The pigs were not as wild as they had been in real life. They were just rooting around a cabin and not trying to harm him, yet he woke in a terrible fright and saw something incomprehensible. Janey was standing a few feet in front of him, with a big rock raised over her head. She was holding it with both hands—why would she do such a thing at that time of night? She wasn’t making a sound; she just stood in front of him holding the rock. It was not until she flung it that he realized someone else was there. But someone was: someone big. In his surprise, Roscoe forgot he had a pistol. He quickly stood up. He didn’t see where the rock went, but Janey suddenly dropped to her knees. She looked around at him. “Shoot at him,” she said. Roscoe remembered the pistol, which was cocked, but before he could raise it, the big shadow that Janey had thrown the rock at slid close to him and shoved him—not a hard shove, but it made him drop the pistol. He knew he was awake and not dreaming, but he didn’t have any more strength than he would have had in a dream in terms of moving quick. He saw the big shadow standing by him but he had felt no fear, and the shadow didn’t shove him again. Roscoe felt warm and sleepy and sat back down. It was like he was in a warm bath. He hadn’t had too many warm baths in his life, but he felt like he was in one and was ready for a long snooze. Janey was crawling, though—crawling right over his legs. “Now what are you doing?” he said, before he saw that her eyes were fixed on the pistol he had dropped. She wanted to pistol, and for some reason crawled right over his legs to get to it. But before she got to it the shadow came back. “Why, you’re a fighter, ain’t you?” the shadow man said. “If I wasn’t in such a hurry I’d show you a trick or two.” Then he raised his arms and struck down at her; Roscoe couldn’t see if it was with an ax or what, but the sound was like an ax striking wood, and Janey stopped moving and lay across his legs. “Joe?” Roscoe said; he had just remembered that he had made Joe stop cocking and uncocking his rifle so he could get to sleep.

“Was that his name?” the shadow man said. Roscoe knew it must be a man, for he had a heavy voice. But he couldn’t see the man’s face. He just seemed to be a big shadow, and anyway Roscoe couldn’t get his mind fixed on it, or on where Joe was or when July would be back, or on anything much, he felt so warm and tired. The big shadow stood astraddle of him and reached down for his belt but Roscoe had let go all concern, he felt so tired. He felt everything would have to stop for a while; it was as if the darkness itself was pushing his eyelids down. Then the warm sleep took him.

This is the scene where Blue Duck kills Roscoe and Joe and Janey, and leaves their bodies for July and Gus to find. I like the way it’s told, not just because the point of view dies in the middle of it and we see the event through his dying eyes, but because it’s a nice way of showing how ill-suited Roscoe was for the challenges that confronted him on his trip, the trip to find July, the trip forced on him by others. Roscoe was only ever happy when he was sitting inside the warm jail in Arkansas, and he was clearly no match for someone the likes of Blue Duck. In a way it’s nice to see that Roscoe doesn’t even know he’s dying, that he goes to his death not understanding what’s happening around him and thinking that he is simply drifting off to sleep.

Chapter 75

I’m not going to type the whole chapter. That would take too long. But if you ever get around to reading this, do yourself a favor and go read Chapter 75 of Lonesome Dove. That’s the kind of fiction I want to write. Stark, real, and teetering on the edge of unfathomable sadness. Have I ever succeeded?

“Did you catch the horsethieves?” he asked.

“We did, but not before they murdered Wilbarger and four other people,” Augustus said.

“Hang ‘em?”

“Yes, hung them all, including Jake Spoon.”

“Well, I’ll swear,” Dish said, shocked. “I didn’t like the man but I never figured him for a killer.”

“He wasn’t a killer,” Augustus said. “Jake liked a joke and didn’t like to work. I’ve got exactly the same failings. It’s lucky I ain’t been hung.”

The hanging of Jake Spoon is perhaps the oddest episode in the book. I’m still not sure if McMurtry pulled it off. If my Dad hadn’t spilled the beans on me, I think I might have believed up to very end that Call and McCrae were not going to go through with it, that they were going to string him up with all the others, but dispatch them first and then let Jake go when there was no one left but the old gang. But they did it. They hung him. I guess because they couldn’t take them all into the authorities and their code of justice said either hang them all or let them all go. Of course, in the end it was Jake who hung himself, spurring the horse before the others could break out the whip. But it was Call and McCrae and the others who strung him up with every intent to do it. I guess this is the one piece that doesn’t feel real to me. I don’t think they would have hung him. The men that McMurty’s characters were, I don’t think they would have hung him. If they had been actors reading a script, they would have said, hey, wait a minute, I don’t think my character would do this. It doesn’t ring true. But if they are going to hang Jake Spoon, then spend more time feeling guilty about it afterwards. They hung Jake with no more emotion than they would have shown shooting a prize horse that had gone lame. Less, in fact.

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