Book Review -
Lonesome Dove, by
Larry McMurtry

A book can be great literature, and you certainly might not like it.

Middlemarch is wonderfully written, and has brilliant and memorable characters, but I didn’t enjoy reading it. I Am Pilgrim – which I read straight after Middlemarch – is not wonderfully written, and has issues galore, but it was a blast to read. 

In either case, I don’t normally struggle to identify why I did or didn’t enjoy a book. Lonesome Dove, however, has me somewhat stumped. 

If I were to analyse it critically, there are plenty of problems I might pick out. 

Chief among these would be the length, which is unnecessary. To say this book is overwritten would be an understatement. Early on, in particular, every time a new character enters the scene we’re told some combination of their life history, their traits, their likes and dislikes, how they feel about the other characters, and so on. This does settle down somewhat as we go along, but a hell of a lot of it still goes in. The internal monologues never really stop, the reflecting and ruminating nigh-constant, usually on the consequences of what’s just happened on the prospects of what might happen soon. Many great books have been written in this way, but – unless the observations really are of a truly profound level – it’s simply not entertaining to read. 

Modernism was thankfully doing away with all this, trusting readers instead to draw their own conclusions. Contemporary literature seems not to be able to make up its mind as to whether this was the right move (which it was) or not. 

The problem is – and I really don’t feel this way often – that this approach… actually, kind-of works in Lonesome Dove. I should hate its bloat, particularly when so much of it does come from the constant, very straightforward explanations of how every character is feeling at every single moment. But I didn’t, and I’m not entirely sure why. 

Probably, it’s because the characters are so bloody brilliant. This might seem trite praise – the characters are heralded in basically any book that a lot of people seem to like – but in this case that praise is genuinely deserved, because the characters really are exceptional. 

Mostly, that’s because they feel real; specifically in the sense that – almost to a man and woman – they’re an absolute mess. 

Every major character thinks they know what they want. In almost every case, that desire is ill-founded. It’s unrealistic. It clearly won’t bring them happiness. They’ve done something like it before, and it didn’t work. Yet regardless of the specifics, and how ill-conceived the objective is, they pursue it anyway. They can’t help themselves. Sometimes, if they fail at an initial goal, they’ll replace it with another one… which is equally foolish. Sometimes another opportunity – and clearly a better one – will present itself along the way; which, of course, the character will reject. It’s all so very frustrating as the reader, and fantastically realistic. 

What’s the story? It doesn’t particularly matter, in truth. 

One of the two protagonists decides he’s going to gather a bunch of cattle and horses, up sticks, then take them, the other main protagonist, and a motley crew of cowboys from Texas all the way up to Montana. Plenty happens along the way, and the pace does pick up pleasingly after a slow start. 

In reality though, the larger story is simply a vehicle for the characters (as, perhaps, literature should be). Some of them grow and change as a result of what happens to them. Others (most of them) refuse staunchly to do so, even if they would certainly be better-served to evolve. 

The story further serves as a vehicle by which McMurtry can explore his setting. 

This is technically a western, but it’s very specifically set at a time in which the Old West is dying. The two protagonists are retired Texas Rangers, well past their prime after decades of battling Native Americans along the Rio Grande. The herds of buffalo they remember from their youth have almost been exterminated. The Native Americans are almost ‘whipped’. Towns are growing, and ‘settlers’ are starting new ones. Ranchers are seeking fresh grounds to the north and west. There is clear respect here for the way things used to be done; but it’s equally clear that those times are almost over, and that the US is about to enter its modern era. 

In general, I frankly couldn’t care less about the Wild West as a setting. Whether in books, video games, movies, or TV shows, the setting itself does nothing for me, evokes nothing, even if the stories themselves can of course be good regardless. 

This was quite literally the first time I’ve encountered an exception. The temporal and geographical setting is so bloody smart here, and so brilliantly realised – again, in a realistic way, rather than a nostalgic or fantastical one – that I finally ‘got it’. I understood the interest in this era, with its strange mixture of samurai-like wandering warriors, interminable journeys, life-threateningly dangerous jobs, and – perhaps above all – its brutality. 

And make no mistake, this book is brutal. 

The casualty rate is remarkably high. The characters do awful things to each other. Similarly to the world of The Revenant, there’s a straightforward, survival-of-the-fittest law to the endless plains. That realistic brutality doesn’t just come through in the violence, however, but in the consequences (or lack thereof) of characters’ actions. This is not a book of automatic happy endings for the good guys (whoever they are). Victories tend to be hard-fought and deserved. Stupidity and poor judgement are punished. Luck plays its role, with some characters happening to end up in the right place at the right time, and the opposite also certainly being true. 

Lonesome Dove is a great, bloated, unwieldy tome. In its own way, it is also an ‘epic’, but not only because of its length. There’s vastly less plot than in other such books – Lord of the Rings, War and Peace, and so on – but it still feels as if there’s enough going on to justify that term. 

The natural enormity of the setting is regularly emphasised, but – more than that – this qualifies as more of a character-driven ‘epic’ than perhaps any other book I’ve read. 

The people who populate Lonesome Dove are largely uneducated, untravelled, and unambitious. And yet there is such diversity between them, such differing outcomes in their stories – and, quite simply, so much stuff happens to them – that the cast of characters somehow adds up to so much more than the sum of its parts. 

And I believe it is this, over anything else – above both its other strengths and its few weaknesses – that makes you feel, when you finish Lonesome Dove, that it was not merely a long book, but a true epic. 

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