Thursday, February 16, 2006

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

In my war-torn paperback copy of Lonesome Dove there is a purple flower crushed flat. The flower is a Bauhinia, a species of orchid, which is the official flower of Hong Kong. It was on the flag there until the British gave the place up officially in, I wanna say, 1999. I brought the flower back with me crushed in the book and didn’t find it again until the 2005 Thanksgiving holidays when I reread this one. I remember the young woman I was travelling with there complaining to me one twilight as I sat outside reading. She had just taken a picture and was laughing at me. She said, “Tim this whole amazing city is just waking up for the night, and you’re missing all of it cause you’re too busy reading about Texas.” I put the book away that night and explored the streets of that strange place with a friend I’ll always remember kindly.

I don’t know where she is now, but I’ve got my copy of Larry McMurtry’s epic right here, along with my smuggled crushed orchid bookmarker.

To say that the made for television adaptation of this book is my father’s favorite film would be an understatement. He loves the movie, as do my brother and I. It is, amazingly, almost as good as the book.

And that’s really saying something, because I love this novel. Gus, Coll, Laurie-darling, Dish Boggett, and all the rest are friends who, like that young woman of a decade ago, I’ll never forget.

LMM tells the story of a cattle drive from the Texas-Mexico border, near present day Piedras Negras, to Montana, north of the Milk River. This is an epic in every sense of the word. It weighs in at a little over 900 pages, contains approximately sixty characters, and spans the length of the American West, both geographical and fictional.

McMurtry is not a stylist. Let’s get that out of the way here, and it won’t need to concern us further.

What he is good at is creating memorable characters, who’ve become almost archtypes inside his own work at this point. Are Augustus McCrae and Woodrow F. Coll not the same young men we met in Leaving Cheyenne so long ago? Doesn’t Newt resemble in some way that young man we came to love in Horseman, Pass By? No matter. If McMurtry tends to repeat himself, that’s fine. The lonesome winds of Archer City must weigh on a man, as we learn in The Last Picture Show.

I’m proud that McMurtry is from Texas. I’m proud that Lonesome Dove won a Pulitzer Prize. I’m proud of all the scholarship he’s accomplished in his four books of essays, even if they all feel a little too much like he’s trying to make up for the Ivory Tower education he never completed. It’s a feeling I can certainly understand. I’m proud that he won a—what’s the award—Oscar—for his work on Brokeback Mountain, though I’ve not seen the film.

I read last summer that he’s giving up the bookstore in West Texas and moving to Florence, just the way Duane does when it’s time to die at the end of the Thalia trilogy. I’m sad that he’s giving up on Texas, if he is. I’m sad that it’s time for him to go, if it is. Texas needs people like McMurty to counter the terrible reputation we have for illiteracy in the rest of the world.

Solomon David said, “The old masters are dying. Or giving up, which will amount to the same thing. It’s left to us to carry on their work, however ill-suited to the task we may feel.”

To which Robert Cogburn responded, “That’s a pretty big burden to place on yourself. How do you know you won’t fail?”

Solomon replied, “Oh, I’m certain to fail ultimately. But I hope to succeed, in those things I try at, for a little while at least. I believe that may be the best any of us can hope for.”

I offer these lines only as poor tribute in this review to a work I admire, from a man I admire. When Larry McMurtry is dead and gone to Florence it’ll be up to those Texas writers and would-be writers who remain to carry on his legacy as best we are able with those poor gifts we have.

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