Thursday, November 25, 2010

Larry McMurtry's "Lonesome Dove": Part I Review

Some time ago, I started to read Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove. I'm now about 300 pages in (the book is some 800-900 pages long), and am ready to offer my thoughts on the book so far. First, I should say that I think Larry McMurtry is a very fine writer. His prose is both fluid and naturally engaging. His writing never comes across as forced. And he can capture a character's voice in subtle, but still distinctive ways. For instance, when Gus speaks, the reader wouldn't even have to be told it was Gus speaking in order to be able to discern who it was. Each character's style is unique and discernible, though not blatantly so in a caricaturized way. In fact, this is what I think constitutes McMurtry's strongest aspect as a writer: character development. However, McMurtry's strength is also, I think, the source of his weakness, too, which is narrative plot development. McMurtry seems to get so wrapped up in giving us multiple glimpses into the minds and hearts of his characters from multiple different angles (and they're nuanced and beautifully-constructed detailed glimpses), that he sacrifices an actual story in doing so. Now, remember I am only 300 pages in. The book is considered an epic, and epics revolve around well-developed characters. However, it is also true that really great epic novels don't have to sacrifice story for character development, even at the beginning. For instance, perhaps the greatest epic of all time (at least in my estimation) is Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace. And its genius is that we not only get profound insight into Tolstoy's main characters, but we get a great narrative story about the Napoleonic wars and, in particular, Napoleon's invasion of Russia -- even from the very beginning of the novel. In Lonesome Dove, that is not so much the case. The only storyline we actually seem to have at page 300 is moving a cattle herd from the borderlands of Texas to Montana. And the only real action in the novel so far has been wrapped up in two events: the nighttime horse raid in Mexico and the thunderstorm episode in the early part of the cattle drive. I can see a sub-plot developing involving July Johnson's search for Jake Spoon (what great names, no?!?), but it's barely in its infancy after only 300 pages. However, one gets the feeling that whatever plot might develop in the remaining two-thirds of the book will be merely as vehicles for illuminating characterization even more. The way that I would describe the book so far is that it is a series of vignettes introducing us to various different types of people that one might encounter in the "wild west" in the late 19th Century. Again, it's worth nothing that these are not caricatures, which sets McMurtry apart and puts him in the realm of great character writers. They're real people with interesting and nuanced stories; but their stories are told rather independently, with the minimal plot narrative as the necessary (and weak) thread that binds these individual stories together in some loose way. All that said, I still have a lot of book left to read, and so perhaps my initial evaluation will modify as I go along. But one thing is for sure, it is a very fine novel. I'm not usually one for westerns, but this one is definitely worth the read.

1 comment:

eric said...

Huck, glad you are enjoying the book! I agree with your sentiment about McMurtry focusing on character development over story, and that is a pattern in almost all of his novels. Every once in awhile (as with my favorite of his books, "Duane's Depressed") character development IS the story, and it works out perfectly.

The action does pick up in the second half of Lonesome Dove as the various characters and their stories and agendas begin to cross paths. But there is a also a lot of drudgery in the book that is intentional, and meant (I think) to portray the monotony of life of a cattle drive... the witticism and novelty of many of McMurtry's characters stem from this or something like it, it's one of the things he really "gets" about the American West: to fight the boredom of wide open empty spaces, people have to become their own entertainment. McMurtry is especially adept at displaying this attribute in his female characters, though you only see a few glimpses of this in Lonesome Dove.

Anyway, look forward to reading your thoughts at the end of the book. A lot happens in the last hundred or so pages!