Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Adventure classics -- Don on the range

Lonesome Dove

by Larry McMurtry


In Books: A Memoir, Texas author Larry McMurtry credits, perhaps quixotically, his first inkling of the characters of W. F. Call and Augustus “Gus” McCrae to his adolescent reading of a condensed version of Don Quijote.

I think Cervantes’ knight would be delighted by the comparison. Not that Gus McCrae is in all respects a legitimate son of the Don, who was anxious to be known as “the purest, chastest lover,” the prologue to his adventures assures us. Still, it isn’t hard to find the antecedents for McCrae’s rescue of golden-haired and golden-hearted prostitute Lorena in Quijote’s compulsive desire to rescue damsels.

Or to see in Cervantes’ parody of chivalrous adventure stories the forerunner of McMurtry’s professed attempt to demythologize the Old West.

“I thought of Lonesome Dove as a book that would demolish the myths,” McMurtry stated in an interview with Texas Monthly magazine. “But instead it just enhanced them.”

And like Cervantes, McMurtry would bow to public demand, writing sequels to his popular work. (In McMurtry’s case, a sequel and two prequels. Not to mention the spawning of multiple television miniseries -- not all authorized -- media events unfortunately not available to the seventeenth century Spanish author.)

For fear of getting too far ahead of things, here’s a brief summary of Lonesome Dove. Now growing old and settled down in South Texas, former Texas Rangers (of the law enforcement organization, not the baseball team), Call and McCrae are joined by another ex-Ranger, Jake Spoon, who is fleeing a murder charge. Spoon’s tales of his travels in
the new territory of Montana excite the normally phlegmatic Call to try his luck at ranching in the North.

Spoon’s romancing of the local settlement’s only prostitute, Lorena, stirs McCrae’s jealousy, if not his ambitions. And as soon as Call, McCrae and their motley crew of cowboys can steal a herd of longhorned cattle from a Mexican bandit, they’re off on one of the longest cattle drives in the history of Western fiction.

Along the way, they endure sandstorms, hail storms, and attacks by venomous snakes; ford innumerable rivers; and fight off attacks by renegades both white and Indian. Most of them die, including (sorry for the spoiler) McCrae. Which is why he had to be resurrected in the prequels Dead Man’s Walk and Commanche Moon.

In a reversal of the usual sequence of events, McMurtry originally sold the story as the script for the 1970’s movie The Streets of Laredo (later used as a title for the sequel novel). When the movie deal failed to get off the ground, he bought the script back and a decade later adapted it into the novel that won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1986. To
flesh out the story, McMurtry turned again to the Call-McCrae theme of dualism.

Multiple pairs of complementary characters -- “good” prostitute Lorena/”bad” prostitute Elmira, “good” black scout Joshua Deets/“bad” black outlaw Frog Lip, Indian renegade Blue Duck/white renegade Dan Suggs, faithless lover Jake Spoon/faithful lover Gus McCrae, and so on, give the novel a cast of epic proportions. I suggest this technique to any writer who needs a lot of characters fast.

The novel is now as entrenched in Texas mythology as Edna Ferber’s Giant, discussed last week. McMurtry himself, now also in old age, views it dispassionately.

“I wrote novel after novel,” he notes in Books. “Most were good. . . None, to my regret, were great, although my long Western Lonesome Dove was very popular -- the miniseries made from it was even more popular. Popularity, of course, is not the same as greatness.”

(Put his comment in perspective by noting he considers only two of the innumerable volumes his bookstores have sold to be great. One was by Sir Isaac Newton. Four centuries ago, perhaps even Cervantes worried less about greatness than about popularity.)

(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics continues a June of stories about Texas and the Southwest with N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn. Yes, I promised it to you today, but McMurtry’s mythologizing has been preying on my mind. A member of the same Kiowa tribe as the renegade Indians of Lonesome Dove, Momaday also won a Pulitzer for his work.)

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