'Lonesome Dove' by Larry McMurtry (published by Pan)
There are so many excellent new books – myriad categories, competitions, prizes – that it might seem perverse to look back at a book from the 1980s, but sometimes one comes across a recommendation that strikes a chord. Often when a celebrity, another author, an actor, is asked to name books of significance to them, such as for the 'List' that The Week
publishes, the selection includes books read long in the past that made a lasting impression.
So it was, a few weeks ago, when the actor John Lithgow picked his favourite books by American writers. With a wide open invitation such as this he chose, among others, a novel by Larry McMurtry called Lonesome Dove.
Lithgow said: 'This is expansive storytelling of the American frontier. It's really nothing more than thousands of cattle being moved from Texas to Montana, but the brutal adventures of its stoical cowboys are endlessly compelling'.
Lithgow, at the moment, is being highly praised for his role in the new movie, Bombshell
, also starring Margot Robbie, Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman. He plays the part of the former CEO of Fox News, who was sued for sexual harassment – successfully – and died the following year. This is a story of misogyny and accompanying power that stretches to the White House. How has it come to pass that the heroes of the 19th-century American West have been appropriated and re-cast in the form of the current American President, who exemplifies none of the fortitude and heroics of the characters in Lonesome Dove
, and yet has convinced his fan base that he is a modern day extension of the men whose determination and integrity opened the way to American greatness?
The men – and the women one supposes – of the National Rifle Association of America see themselves as defenders of the faith of the American frontier, where, according to received wisdom, everything rested on the individual to save the day, to know what action to take in the face of adversity. How many times has President Trump proclaimed this role for himself. Yet this is so far from the truth of 'how the West was won'. Teamwork, trust and honour are the core traits of the characters in Lonesome Dove
; they are the means of survival. This mutual ambition – not without clashes – powers the book. One man against the elements hasn't a chance.
Lithgow is right, basically this is a cattle drive, all 800 pages of it. However, the book's descriptive writing, of the landscape – the awesome extent of the wide prairie – the personalities and the confrontations between man and land make it absolutely gripping. No-one had ever opened the frontier of northern Montana to ranching before two former captains in the Texas Rangers and the cowboys of the Hat Creek Cattle Company set off from Lonesome Dove, a dusty little town along the Rio Grande in southern Texas, to prove that it could be done. Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call, lifelong friends, cynical now in middle age, at a time when the Rangers have been disbanded in their part of the world – the last Indians having been, supposedly, seen off – seek adventure. In their view, their past efforts have only made the country safe for lawyers and bankers to 'come in and get civilisation started'.
The book is rich in humour and in characters: Jake Spoon has accidentally shot a dentist through the wall of the saloon, hitting the man as he passed by on the other side of the street, and now is on the run, reluctantly hunted by hapless July Johnson, the sheriff, whose wife has skipped town; Lorena, who is young and beautiful, but her only way of making a kind of living is by being a whore in Lonesome Dove; enigmatic Clara, who knows her own mind and understands men as well as horses; the Mexican bandit cook; the Irish boys who join Hat Creek because their families cannot afford to feed them; Newt, brought up by Gus and Call, but who is uncertain of the identity of his own father; all of these create bonds that come into play when various disasters strike, whether it is the weather, Indians, or other men, armed, dangerous and without morals.
Armed, dangerous and without morals. This sounds familiar today, as the world waits for yet another temper tantrum from the White House, in the guise of defending the world. What Lonesome Dove
creates is another world where, instead of individual impulsive action, cooperation and consideration are what time and again save the group from danger. Captain Call rides ahead and scouts with Deets, his best tracker; how to proceed is heatedly discussed; consensus is reached. It is a form of diplomacy, not always, but experience counts, expertise is valued, and often there is sacrifice.
Treachery is recognised for what it is, and justice is fierce and summary. Promises are kept, truth respected. Tenderness is allowed, weakness even, especially amongst the young boys who miss their families, and Newt, who longs to know even who his family is. When he is finally allowed, at 17, to ride with the cowboys, 'the first thing he noticed about being grown up was that time didn’t pass as slow'.
was made into a miniseries in 1989, winning two Golden Globes, and with its enormous success it revived the Western for television audiences. The author, with Peter Bogdanovich, wrote the screenplay in four episodes for CBS. Much of the television dialogue was lifted directly from the novel, which, like Shakespeare, is full of quotations. Gus is played by Robert Duvall, Call by Tommy Lee Jones and Deets by Danny Glover. McMurtry writes with a naturalness that creates a character on the page (though the miniseries too is said to be extraordinary). Augustus, a man of great bravery and insight, comments that: 'Occasionally the very youngness of the young moved him to charity – they had no sense of the swiftness of life, of its limits'.
The spectre of death hovers over the book, in which are lost a number of its characters during the year it takes to herd more than 1,000 cattle a distance of over 3,000 miles through unknown and dangerous territory. Death by drone and explosion have none of the emotional grit that snake bite, shooting or hanging convey. It has become all too easy in this day and age to believe that being distant from atrocities somehow makes them less terrible.
, the novel, read for the love of its language, is a reminder that just because violence is sometimes necessary for survival, it is not the answer. Indeed, it is that unintentional shot that kills the dentist which sets in motion a chain of events unforeseeable and unstoppable. There's a lesson in that.
A Post Script: John Lithgow's latest book, 'Dumpty: The Age of Trump in Verse', a collection of poems and illustrations, is published by Chronicle Books.