Thursday, April 30, 2009

In Belated Praise of Lonesome Dove

I haven't read a western in a long time. Gram and I went through a Zane Grey phase one summer; I'd check out a towering stack of plastic-wrapped large-prints whose covers were graced with smudgy oil paintings of cowboys and Indians raising hell and dust on prairie mesas, and we'd curl up by the sunny window in her bedroom and while away the afternoons with tea and Girl Scout cookies.

I'll read anything (including the backs of shampoo bottles in their entirety, VCR instructions, and every word of every magazine I subscribe to), so it didn't seem significant to me to swallow a whole series of westerns in a matter of months, but for some reason I avoided Lonesome Dove for almost 25 years; I've never even watched the movie. When I finally picked the book up last week I didn't actually expect to read it, but I grabbed it on the way out the door to pass a lonely afternoon at the plant after my chores were done and opened it while the filter was wasting. And then I couldn't put it down. I devoured it in two days and am still trying to figure out why.

I guess I love the landscape, for one thing. No matter where I may live, the west lives in me, and like the tourism ads, well, advertise, the Old West is still truly just under the surface in Wyoming. (I love the trademarked slogan: Forever West. So true.) It's a way of thinking, a way of life, and no matter how modernized the trappings become (a modern man surely feels the same glowing pride and fierce possessiveness over his truck that a cowboy once felt about his horse, if indeed modern man doesn't still have a horse, because I know quite a few who do), it's still evident in the pace of my world and in the faces of the people I spend the most time with. My boss Jeff, for instance, didn't have indoor plumbing until he was 13 years old (neither did my mother, incidentally), took a team and sleigh to school, and still farriers horses with shoes he shapes by hand on an anvil after heating them in a forge. There is nothing more western than that. Lonesome Dove is chock full o' sagebrush, creosote, snakes, wind, prairie grass, sage chickens, blue northerns, wind, icy rivers, guns, horses, ropes, wind, campfires, coyotes and cows, and that's still just a walk around the block out here.

The story is just epic enough for me, and there's just enough tangled fate and tragedy and one whopping identity crisis, but I think the main thing is that I instantly, for all his faults, fell more than a little bit in love with Gus McCrae. You can usually credit the characters if I can't. Put. A book. Down. Even an unbelievable or too-convenient story -- and Lonesome Dove isn't one -- can be saved by believable, sympathetic characters, so a good story like this one only gives well-rounded characters solid ground to stand on. (It's worth noting that the plot focuses more on personal emotion, understanding [or lack of], and interaction than on fundamental westernness.) McMurtry is a good storyteller who appoints his characters with plenty of truthful facets and appealing flaws and marches them off on a cattledrive with muddy enough motives that it's more like a pilgrimage to the last great untamed wilderness in the west. Hello, Pulitzer.

Hello new addition to my Compulsively Readable Necessary Escape shelf. I'm only sorry I came so late to the party.


Blogger mister anchovy said...

Sounds like a fun read...I'd read that one with an Ian Tyson CD on in the background.

May 1, 2009 at 5:32 AM  
Blogger A said...

I had to YouTube him, but you've hit the nail on the head. Ian Tyson and Lonesome Dove go together like certain wines and cheeses!

May 1, 2009 at 11:15 AM  

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