When I've built my time machine, remind me to never, EVER, visit the Great Plains of 19th century America. Seriously. I think every young man at one point or another has had the romantic notion of just taking their dog and riding horseback, camping and hunting and moving along, seeing the world and answering to nobody, but just taking the time to appreciate the world and how amazing it is. And then you read Lonesome Dove
. Life is damn cheap and damn brutal in McMurtry's Old West. You might just as easily die crossing what passes for a stream in the drought infested wilderness as get an arrow stuck in your spine by a native. Not to mention dying of dehydration, rattlesnakes, cattle stampedes, being bucked by your horse, struck by lightning, robbed, shot, hung and burned by bandits, or contracting tuberculosis. In spite of the bitter realities of frontier life, all of which are heartrendingly present in McMurtry's tale, he manages to keep a lot of the romance alive. Purple sunsets, huge herds of buffalo and endless golden plains are just as powerful as imagery as the barrenness and bleakness of a dirt-floored hovel in the middle of nowhere. The result: life is a terrifying, but beautiful thing, grand in its design and wonderful to behold, but terrible and pernicious to even the most wary and prudent of men and women. It's enough to make a man wistful and reflective of the life he's lived and the experiences he hasn't had by rooting himself in place and the novel has a powerful effect on your very soul. Not to mention the fact that Augustus McRae is the coolest and most memorable character in modern fiction. Period.
A band of retired Texas rangers sets up a cattle and livery business in Lonesome Dove to live out the rest of their days in relative peace by comparison to their wild and dangerous younger days. Perhaps the single most amusing thing about the Hat Creek Company is that they have no cattle or horses for sale or rent in stock. Whenever there's demand, they just hop on over the border and steal what's needed from Mexican ranchers and horse breakers, crimes they themselves hung men for in their younger days. Augustus McRae and Captain Woodrow Call are the odd couple of the Western genre. A more dichotomous and complementary pair doesn't exist anywhere else in the genre, and I daresay they're more memorable a pair than anywhere else in all of fiction. Definitely a lot less annoying than Sam and Frodo. And that comparison is pretty apt. Lonesome Dove
is Tolkien-esque in scale and in cast of characters. Call is a workaholic living in constant fear of failing to live up to the moral standards he sets for both himself and his men. His life is complicated by several reminders of said failings, all of which generally drives him to be overly hard on himself, his men, and a solitary existence in the midst of people who are unflaggingly loyal and admiring of him. Augustus McRae is a rake who takes his whiskey on the Hat Creek porch at noon while all the rest of the men in the outfit are doing backbreaking labor under the direction of Call. A talker and philosophizer, his demeanor, attitude, and chattiness are constant annoyances to Call whose number of lines in the 900 page novel could probably fit on about 5 pages. In spite of this, the two men share a friendship that is deeper and more meaningful than any I've ever read of in fiction or ever witnessed in life. Their differences in philosophy and lifestyles combine to create a balanced whole. Their mundane existence is disrupted when a former compañero, Jake Spoon, rides to see them with tales of the openness and freedom of the Montana plains, and the fact that their are, as yet, no cattle upon them. Call gets it in mind to be the first rancher in Montana in spite of the fact that he has no particular interest in ranching, and this interest is the beginning of a sweeping story that scoops up more than twenty people and sets them off across the plains on a three thousand mile journey of adventure, danger, love revisited and love lost that has no parallel to anything I've ever read.
This book proves that the fantasy genre is not the only one that lays claim to the "epic" in it's more traditional usage. The narrative is split from a dozen points-of-view, and if the thought of that is overwhelming and distasteful to you, know that in the 900 pages he has, McMurtry develops each and every one of those characters to the extent that by the end you won't forget a single one whether you loved them or hated them. In spite of the sheer quantity of characters, I also felt deeply attached to them all and felt their deaths very keenly (if they were one of the unlucky ones). That attachment makes every hint or foreshadowing of danger an anxious experience for the reader and I realized about halfway through that I was scared for them. Every time I opened the book, I was worried about who wasn't going to make it today. I think that speaks volumes about the experience McMurtry has created. And the blistering reality is, there's not a whole lot to genuinely feel happy about in this tale. The "ups" are plateaus of normalcy that make you appreciative of a life without remarkable events because when they come around, they usually upset things for the worst.
One last note about McRae. If you don't want to be his friend and hang out with him by the end of this, you're crazy. Cool, charming, laid-back and funny he puts the reader and the company at ease with his idle banter and witticisms. And in a flash the man can be ice cold, serious, sentimental and loyal enough to chase after you if you've been caught up by Indians (even after he spent the morning berating you about your lack of education and poor outlook on life). He's a rake and a rogue that likes to cause trouble for fun, even if that fun is meddling in the developing romantic relationships of his friends by making himself a competing suitor for a lady's attention for the sake of the look on the guy's face when he realizes what's going on. Yet one constantly gets the feeling that he's wise beyond any man you're ever likely to meet, kind and gentle at the core. He understands the feelings and ways of the men and women he comes across, and while he'll poke fun at them for taking themselves so seriously, he's more than willing to let them be and acknowledge that those behaviors form the essence of a beautiful and unique character he's not really willing to change in spite of all his "You shoulds..." McMurtry has created a character so unique and so likable you're likely to remember him yourself till the day you die.
All-in-all: one of the greatest novels I've ever read.