Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Lonesome Dove

I've owed this blog a review of Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove for God knows how long now. But it's never been that far in the back of my mind. And it's been even more front and center there recently. The problem is that it's such an epic, long novel that to do it justice in a review seems kinda daunting, especially after so much time has passed. So I think what I'll do is review the book in piecemeal fashion: a bit here, a bit there, until I get what I want to say out there. Let me start with a couple of general observations that I've made before about the book, and then I'll do a kind of character assessment. First, the novel is extremely well-written. The narrative style is engaging, witty, and very coherent. It is sophisticated and, at times, actually masterful. The dialogue is especially noteworthy for its ability to capture the kind of slang and speaking mannerisms of the 19th Century western United States. I promise you that if you pick up this 800-900 page book and don't let the length of it deter you from starting it, you'll find that it reads easily and that the length of it becomes less daunting over time.

I've said this before and I'll repeat it again here: it is an epic story where the characters, their personalities, and their relationships are much more central than the actual storyline itself. Essentially the storyline is simple: it's about a cattle drive from South Texas to Montana. But my criticism is not so much that the plot is very basic, and that the focus is on the characters; but rather that the plot is contained exclusively by the characters. What do I mean by that? I mean, essentially, that if you read this book, you'll come to think that the only people who constituted this vast expanse of territory were the 25-30 folks who make up the various characters introduced in the story. There is not a single character that we are introduced to with some measure of development that isn't just some passing personality in the whole epic story. This just seems incredulous to me, especially in an epic story. I mean, really, there must have been plenty of side stories and marginal personalities that flitted in and out of this epic story, and surely some of them were probably important for brief flashes in the story timeline. But we just don't hear much about them. Even the cattle driver who shows up at the Hat Creek Ranch at the beginning of the story factors into the story in a significant way later. The actual reality of the epic of human existence is that some people enter into narrative story arcs, have important roles to play for brief periods of time, and then just disappear into the unknown afterwards, never to be heard from again. But in Lonesome Dove, you hardly ever get this picture of reality. There is not a single character that I can think of that you are introduced to in the story who isn't, at some point, of vital importance to the storyline. And that the characters we meet are all neatly threaded together in ways that simply defy one's sense of what the real course of human interaction is like. How likely is it, for instance, that July Johnson will hunt for Jake Spoon, then give up the hunt for Spoon to go after his pathetic wife, but bumping into Gus McCrae along the way, only to find himself making his way to Clara's ranch (Clara, of course, is the erstwhile love of of Gus McCrae's life) and becoming one of her ranch-hands, where his pregnant, fleeing wife just happens to have also landed and given birth to his son. I mean, come on!! That never happens in real life. It's all so tidy and neat! Anyway, that's my major criticism of the narrative style. It's just too impossible and unbelievable. That said, it's still a riveting read.

But what I'd like to do, since the novel is character-centri, is to focus on individual character profiles and to review them a bit. To give my thoughts on what each character means and symbolizes to me. And I'll start with Jake Spoon.

He has to be one of the most tragic and pathetic characters in the whole novel. The genius of McMurtry's creation of Spoon is that you never can reconcile yourself to the character. You can never really decide if you like the man or if you despise him, if you feel sorry for him or if you think he's a heel who got what he deserved. What you do get with the Spoon character is a strong sense of the real tragedy of human existence. He is a character who is charming, talented, and full of potential, only to be brought down by his human weakness. His vanity, his pride, his loneliness drives him into situations that he simply can't escape from and which ultimately become his undoing. The fact that he ended up being hanged for cattle and horse thieving by his lifelong friends Gus and Call was surprising to me. That kind of indiscriminate justice, without due process of trial and judgment according to constitutional rights, seems so foreign and merciless; and yet we know that Gus and Call are reasonable and merciful people. It just didn't square with modern sensibilities. I suppose McMurtry did capture here a lost sense of justice that pervaded the wild west of 19th Century America. It was a time of different moral codes and different ideas of constitutional rights. But, back to Spoon ...

You always want to like the man, but just can never bring yourself to do so, even though you know that his luck is always so damn rotten. And yet, in spite of the fact that he faces lots of bad luck that is not of his own making, there is a lot of bad luck he encounters that comes of his poor decisions, too. And here is another element of the tragedy of his character. His undeserved misfortune degrades his mental state such that he gets down on himself and gets depressed. And then it is this self-loathing and depression that leads him to consciously make bad decisions and choices that also contribute to his bad luck. You get the sense that he is one of those people whose fate has been predetermined to always be bad and that he is just condemned to a miserable life. No matter how much he tries to fight against his fate, it's almost just pointless. And this is where the reader feels a bit of empathy for the character. There is an unfairness about his life that almost approaches injustice; and it's hard for a reader to therefore condemn Spoon for anything about the bad things that he does or gets caught up in. In short, Spoon is the classic tragic figure in the story whose life ends without any sense of redemption. We can contrast Spoon with July Johnson, who is another tragic character, but one whose inherent goodness brings his tragic reality to a point of redemption. More on July Johnson later. For now, I'll just end it here with this little evaluation of Jake Spoon. If you've read the book, I welcome your comments.


Eric said...

I agree that there is a bit of 'deus ex machina' at work in many of McMurtry's character arcs, but I think it is intentional, and done with the intent of imparting upon the reader an understanding of the tiny population density of the West compared to its vastness. It was a huge frontier, but a small community, with limited channels of transportation that made it likely for traveler's lives to become intertwined. In the 1870s, when this story takes place, the entire state of Texas had a population roughly equivelant to modern day Phoenix (amazingly, only 60 years prior, Texas's population is estimated to have been about 6000 people, mostly wide ranging Comanche). If you read much Texas history, you'll find all kinds of stories of unlikely personalities in unlikely places. For instance, Cynthia Ann Parker's childhood abduction by Comanche indians caused a stir all across the nation, led to a decade long rescue mission by her family, and then 30 years later her son Quanah showed up as the leader of the last militant band of Comanche (just finished an incredibly good book about the Comanche and Parker family, called "Empire of the Summer Moon").

So while I agree that saga of July Johnson is a fantastic stretch, it is also emblematic of the many such fantastic tales that are peppered throughout the history of the West (and especially Texas).

And I think you are dead on in your review of Jake Spoon. Everybody knows somebody who is sort of like that... high on charisma, light on ethics, and always shit out of luck. Regarding his hanging, I always thought there was a little bit of unspoken tension there where Gus and Call blamed Jake for Lorena's abduction and torture by Blue Duck. The crime he got caught committing was mostly due to his aloofness and stupidity, but what he did to Lorena was pure selfish animosity. You have to wonder which one he was really paying for by being hanged.

Also, I found your comments about frontier justice interesting. You talk about it not squaring with modern sensibilities, but I think the spirit of (or desire for) that type of common sense, provincial, and immediate justice is still alive in the West, where many people are only a few generations removed from family members who had familiar knowledge of such frontier justice. The prevailing notion is that when society's institutions are too far removed or too ineffective to do their job, individuals are responsible for maintaining justice as best they can. People respond strongly to stories where this takes place, and Westerns (along with the modern super hero tale) make for some of the best of those types of stories.

Anyway, great review! I look forward to reading your thoughts on other Lonesome Dove characters. I read an interview with McMurtry one time where he said the idea for LD started with him wanting to tell a Western version of Don Quixote. I don't think that's quite what he ended up with, but many of the elements are there.

Huck said...

Eric - Just a quick follow-up on your take on Jake Sppon's hanging. That thought never crossed my mind, simply because both Gus and Call could also be held somewhat responsible for Lorena's abduction by Blue Duck. Remember that Gus actually was with Lorena when Blue Duck first appeared, and Gus could have taken him out right then and there (in fact, even before Blue Duck took Lorena, Gus was kicking himself for not having done just that). And then it was Gus who left Lorena and sent Newt to keep an eye on her. Call was always surly towards Lorena and was clear that Lorena wasn't welcome with the Hat Creek outfit because she would be a distraction to the guys and would slow them down. And Spoon, knowing himself and his penchant for carousing while on the trail, really tried to dissuade Lorena from trip in the first place. None of this is to excuse Spoon for his reprehensible behavior towards Lorena and his abandoning her, but, again, it was one of those raw deal moments that he got saddled with when there was really more blame to go around than what Spoon ended up shouldering. Maybe Gus and Call did feel a bit as you say they did with regard to Spoon's hanging; but if they did, it was a bit of misplaced judgment. I was actually surprised that no one really even entertained the possibility of hearing Spoon's defense or of trying to defend Spoon. All Spoon was guilty of was choosing to ride with those sociopaths. Spoon never actually hurt anybody or agreed with the outlaw behavior. He even protested it. But he was outnumbered and the gang made it clear that if Spoon ever tried to leave, they would kill him. Again, he put himself in a pickle from which he could not extract himself without forfeiting his life, one way or the other. And he had no way of knowing this when he first hooked up with the gang. His hanging was sad and almost even unjust. I have to say that McMurtry's painting of Spoon in this way was no small feat and was a little bit of genius.