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Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry – a masterpiece

September 25, 2022 8 comments

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. (1985) French title: Lonesome Dove. Translated by Richard Crevier.

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry is Gallmeister #7 and #8, one of the first books that this newly founded publisher chose when they started their literary adventure. I understand why Oliver Gallmeister picked Lonesome Dove, it’s a page turner, an excellent western that brings modernity to the genre.

We’re in the late 1870s. Augustus ‘Gus’ McCrae and Captain Woodrow Call, former Texas Rangers, run the Hat Creek Cattle Company and Livery Emporium since they left the army. They are settled in Lonesome Dove, a small town in the Republic of Texas, near the Rio Grande, by the Mexican border.

They live on their property with Pea Eye, Deets, the young Newt and Bolivar. Deets and Pea Eye come from their ranger days, Deets used to be their scout and Pea Eye is a faithful companion. Newt is only seventeen, the orphaned son of Maggie, a prostitute in Lonesome Dove. Although he doesn’t acknowledge it, all think that Newt is Call’s son.

They have settled on a routine. Steal horses and cattle across the Rio Grande and sell them in Texas. Captain Call cannot stay still and make Deets, Pea Eye and Newt work as ranch hands. When the book opens, he’s dead on digging a new well on the property. Needless to say, the job is harassing under the Texan summer sun. The men admire Captain Call so much that they’d do whatever he wants.

Gus is the jolly man of the group: he talks his head off all the time, spends his days sipping whisky and visiting the local saloon. His contribution to the chores is limited to cooking biscuits for breakfast. He’s a charmer. He’s also better educated than the others and keeps an interest in papers.

Call is a born leader, in a stern and steady way. Gus is his opposite and it’s easy to see how the two men balance each other and made a good pair in the army. They are loyal to each other and loyalty is precious in these unruly days.

None of them is ready to say it aloud but they are a little bored. Call itches to be on the move and do something. Gus is still thinking about Clara, “the one who got away” and left to settle in Nebraska with her husband.

Arrives Jake Spoon, another man from their ranger days. He’s flaky and a gambler. He’s running away from sheriff July Johnson from Fort Smith after he accidentally killed a man in this town.

Jake Spoon explains that he’s been to Montana and that it is heaven on Earth and an incredible place to start a cattle ranch. Captain Call didn’t need more that this nudge to decide it’s a great idea and he starts planning their departure.

The whole book is about their trip to Montana. They get the cattle, recruit cowboys, prepare their trip. During their preparation, Jake seduces the beautiful Lorena, a local prostitute who wants to go to San Francisco. They are all more or less in love with her and Jake takes her with them.

Up till now, everything I wrote is the setting of a classic western but Lonesome Dove is more than that. It’s made of unforgettable characters who all have their intimate fault lines.

Gus is bigger than life with his sensitive approach and his boldness. He cares about others, doesn’t shy away from his feelings and is very nurturing with Newt and Lorena for example. He’s the life of the group, the one who cheers them up, talks with people who are fragile and deflects conflicts. Captain Call’s natural leadership would be harsh if Gus weren’t there to smooth things over.

In Lonesome Dove, men and women aren’t cast as usual in westerns.

McMurtry pictures multi-dimensional cowboys. They are tough on the outside, living and riding in difficult conditions. They kill people if needed and without any qualms. At the same time, they are tender-hearted, vulnerable and weak.

Dish Bogget is hopelessly in love with Lorena. Gus still longs for Clara and wishes he had married her. Call is torn over Newt and his fatherhood. Jake is a coward. Another cowboy is terrified by water and is afraid to drown. Newt often cries on his horse. Sheriff July Johnson is afraid of his shadow and a poor shot. His deputy Roscoe is a riding catastrophe when he’s on a horse and doesn’t know how to live in the wilderness.

McMurtry also describes a time where women are objects of desire and never their own person. They are prostitutes to satisfy the men’s sexual needs. They are wives to be a homemaker and free workforce. They are informal properties to steal. They live a hard life and have to steel themselves against men.

In Lonesome Dove, the women are the tough ones. They are practical, strong and don’t hesitate to make hard decisions. They need to survive.

Lorena has been pushed around by men all her life and sees Jake as a means to go to San Francisco. Clara is the one who made the tough decision to marry a reliable but dull man and who proves to be resilient and intelligent.

Another woman propositions Roscoe and asks him to marry her. Her husband is dead and she needs a man to build her farm and for sex.

Lonesome Dove pictures an attaching set of characters, it’s hard not to like Gus, Call, Newt and the others. They’re enough to keep the reader’s interest but on top of that, McMurtry has an exceptional sense of place.

He shows us how tough it was to ride from Texas to Montana. We see all the dangers, snakes, thunderstorms, heat and rivers to cross. The cook is a genius and manages to feed everyone. The cowboys manage to drive the cattle from Texas to Montana, something like 1700 miles with a herd of cows. Their bull is almost a character in the book. They lose men on the way. They are attacked by bandits and Indians. They are in the last years of total wilderness.

McMurtry also shows the end of an era. Gus and Captain Call were legendary Texas rangers. Older people still remember them and they have their picture in saloons. But a new generation is taking over. One who is building towns, doing business and has lived in a rather pacified country. The Indian wars are over in most places. The bison have been decimated by greedy hunters. Pioneers arrive everywhere to colonize the land and set up farms. The land where Gus and Call used to ride freely is becoming private property.

The time of frontiersmen has come to an end. Gus and Call have become men of the past. Their way of life is dying. Lonesome Dove is a page turner that shows how a country turns a new leaf in history.

Very, very, highly recommended.

PS: This is also my contribution to Liz Dexter’s event, Larry McMurtry 2022.

The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry

May 4, 2014 19 comments

The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry. (1966) French title: La dernière séance. Translated by Simone Hilling (1972)

When I saw La dernière séance by Larry McMurtry on the display table of a book store, I didn’t think of the film but of the eponymous song by French singer Eddy Mitchell, even if it doesn’t have anything to do with the book. That and the fact that it’s published by Gallmeister prompted me to buy it.

Duanne and Sonny live in a small town in Texas, Thalia. We’re in 1951. They’re in high school and come from dysfunctional families. They are roommates in a boarding house and work after school to support themselves. Their circumstances don’t prevent them from being typical adolescents: school is barely tolerable, sport takes part of their free time, girls are the centre of their attention and the best moment of the week is Saturday night. We’re following Sonny’s point of view in this coming-of-age novel.

Sometimes Sonny felt like he was the only human creature in the town. It was a bad feeling, and it usually came on him in the mornings early, when the streets are completely empty, the way they were one Saturday morning in late November. The night before Sonny had played his last game of football for the Thalia High School, but it wasn’t that that made him feel so strange and alone. It was just the look of the town.

There was only one car parked on the courthouse square—the night watchman’s old white Nash. A cold norther was singing in off the plains, swirling long ribbons of dust down Main Street, the only street in Thalia with businesses on it.

Sonny is coming out of the protective shell of childhood and starts confronting himself with real life. He didn’t have a sheltered childhood but he’s mentally shifting from innocence to realization that adult life isn’t that easy. He’s going through the motions of his life without parents. Duanne is his constant companion and he relies on Sam the Lion, an old man who owns the billiard in town. He’s taken in Billie, the simpleton of the town and watches the teenagers to make sure they stay on the right path. The boys play billiard, go to the cinema more to make out with girls than to watch the film and play in all the sports team of the high school. (It seems to have too little students per school level to have enough different participants in each sport)

McMurtry_livreThe Last Picture Show doesn’t have a clear plot with a beginning, events and a conclusion. It only describes Sonny’s days, his growing awareness that life is not a Hollywood film. He doesn’t have a clear future. College is out of the equation, no exciting job is waiting for him. He doesn’t intend to leave Thalia; he lacks confidence in himself, encouragement to be ambitious for himself and to expect more from life. He doesn’t have an adult role model to push him forward. He’s an intelligent kid but he’s drifting away, he lets the flow bring him wherever it goes. I couldn’t help but think that he was a young plant lacking the right fertilizer that good parenting can bring. The adults around him aren’t great role models, especially the coach at school. Sam the Lion keeps Sonny and Duanne on their toes and obliges them to behave because he doesn’t tolerate bad behaviour in his business. In a town like Thalia, you can’t afford to be banned from the billiard joint, there aren’t enough possible replacement places for enjoyment. Apart from that, the boys rely on themselves.

The town of Thalia is a character in itself with its colourful characters, its small town atmosphere. Thalia is oppressing; it’s small, isolated and doesn’t have a lot of employment opportunities. Some small town live thanks to an important factory settled on their territory. Not Thalia. Courtesy of small town world, everybody knows everything about everybody, gossips are the rule. But despite its small size, Thalia has its social barrier between people and although Duanne dates Jacy, the local high school beauty and celebrity, he doesn’t have the economic power to marry her. It’s also a decade where sex is a taboo and a hypocritical one in a don’t-ask-don’t-tell kind of way, even if Thalia is not an overly religious town. It could be, we’re in the Bible belt after all. Larry McMurtry wrote at the beginning of the book: The Last Picture Show is lovingly dedicated to my home town. He was born in 1936 in a small town in Texas and he was 30 when this novel was published, which means his memories from his adolescence were fresh in his mind. This dedication is important because it sets the tone of the book with the word lovingly. Thalia is the kind of town an adolescent could loathe. It’s narrow-minded, small and boring. But McMurtry’s vision of Thalia is full of affection. Even if he doesn’t hide the drawbacks of such a tiny remote town, he’s nonetheless tolerant and forgiving.

I love cities and the anonymity they provide. I’m not fond of crowds but I like that they mean that people mind their own business and don’t notice if you change your car, your hair colour or of boyfriend. The Thalias of the world make me want to run to the other side of the country and I felt sorry for Sonny to be trapped in that kind of place. I wanted him to bolt and start afresh in the nearest city.

The Last Picture Show is a lovely book, a bit sad sometimes. It’s depicts well adolescence in small towns but shows that wherever you are, teenage angst is surprisingly alike. That comes with being human.

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