Monday, August 29, 2011

Lonesome Dove Character Profile of the Day: Augustus (Gus) McCrae

Out of all of the character in Larry McMurtry's novel Lonesome Dove, Gus McCrae is, in my estimation, the most compelling character by far. He's not only the intellectual (such as they came then and in those parts), but he's also perhaps the wisest, and certainly the most generous and selfless, character of the bunch. And in spite of his booming self-confidence and his sometimes cockiness, he's also really perhaps the warmest and truly kindest character in the novel. And that doesn't even get into his amazing skills with a horse and a gun. He's just one of those intuitively all-around good guys with unparalleled talents, but with enough genuine modesty about it, too.

I loved that there was always an air of carelessness and seeming recklessness in his actions. He was a risk-taker; but one who knew the limits of his abilities and one who also had an acute ability to measure up a situation with precision accuracy, to always make the best decision in crisis situations, and to accept fully the consequences of the deck he was dealt without a single complaint or without a loss of his infectious positive attitude and good humor.

The one and only disappointment I had with the character of Gus McCrae, and the one action of his, that just seemed totally inconsistent with his expansive love of life was his decision not to have his gangrenous leg amputated in order to save his life. For a man who never gives up the fight in tight spots, the fact of giving up the fight for life when the saving of his life was there for the taking just seems totally out of character.

McMurtry seems to imply that when Gus accepted the fact that he just couldn't have the love of his life, Clara, in the way that he hoped, he simply gave up on life. Gus would rather have died physically whole rather than live a life with an amputated leg without Clara. Maybe he just finally got tired of it all, accepted that his time had come, and was o.k. with that. Even if this were true, it still would seem out of character.

Gus's death was the watershed moment in the novel. You just knew that without Gus around, not only would nothing ever be the same again, but also that what did remain just didn't seem to matter all that much, or seem to have that meaningful lustre.

In the character of Gus McCrae, McMurtry gave the literary world of novels in the frontier Western tradition their epic hero. Although I'm not very well-versed in westerns, I can't imagine there being any character more iconic than Gus McCrae. To the western literary genre, Gus McCrae is the equivalent of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Gatsby or Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.


Eric said...

I think some of the best symbolism one can take away from the Lonesome Dove story comes from considering the contrast of Gus vs. Call. To me, Gus exemplified the untamed 'Wild West' ethos, while Call was the embodiment of stern, cold, and encroaching Western civilization. One thing McMurtry seemed to be saying is that while it is human nature for us to venerate the former while scoffing at the priggish nature of the latter, it is the the latter which will always prevail, because the former inevitably self destructs (it was, after all, Gus's impulsive decision to stampede a herd of buffalo just for the fun of it that led to his demise). What is really unique about McMurtry's take on this issue (which he expounds on in the other Lonesome Dove books) is how he makes these two opposing viewpoints dependant on one another. In fact, in some ways it is the amicable tension between the two that drives the whole story. You almost get the feeling that everytihng Gus does and everything Call does, they are doing to show the other how wrong thier worldview is.

Huck said...

No question, Eric, that McMurtry contrasted the characters of Gus and Call intentionally, presenting each as the alter-ego of the other. With that I agree. And I do think McMurtry does suggest that the side of the Western icon represented in the character of Call is the durable and more transformative side. More plodding, methodical, and efficacious workhorse of populating and developing the West. Gus is much more the romanticized Western ideal for sure. But we have to remember that it was Gus and his impulsiveness that not only led to the injury that cost him his life, but which also actively confronted injustice and which humanized the West. Call would have let Lorena perish. Not Gus. But even still, I think you are correct at the core in your interpretation of complementarity of their characters and what each symbolized in McMurtry's narrative about how the "West was won."

Unknown said...

Gus is the American dream or what we dream cowboys should have been. Definitely romanticised. He is the embodiment of what people wish they could be, what people wish they could do. Reckless enough to have the adventure of a life time more than once, while remaining impeccably moral and wise. Bold enough not to ignore the law, but to embody it and take action, and Warm enough to capture our hearts. When casting this character in the miniseries, Robert Duvall was the best choice. His embodiment of Augustus was flawless. Character and actor alike made it better. It's what happens when an actor was born for a role. The way you see Duvall smile as Gus McCrea when he is joshing all the other boys around the camp fire sticks in my head. My favorite Western character is Augustus McCrea. His outlook on life I hold dear. The way he loved, the way he lost, and the gentle, yet capable hero he was is exactly the kind of man I wanted to be. He is the symbol of the untamed American dream. In a way he defined the American dream by his trials, and happiness. He is prosperous, yet a bit lonely, courageous, yet uncertain about his true love, vulnerable in his friendships, bold in his dealings of injustice, kind to the broken hearted, and unwaveringly stubborn in the way he will chose to live and die. The old West would have benefited from such a man, and in a way, we search for the Augustus McCrea within us daily.