Monday, September 05, 2011

Lonesome cowboys

While on my end-of-summer vacation I whipped through Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove -- a big, sprawling tale that I missed entirely in its hey-dey; I even managed to miss the mini-series, an omission I'll correct before too long. I had to make myself put it down every now and then to save my eyes. It's the kind of book that has become more and more rare as I grow older -- an honest-to-God page-turner.

I've got a soft spot for westerns and the romance that clings to the idea of the cowboy. My dad's long love-affair with the wide open spaces of Montana is also a draw. I've never been there myself, but I'm fascinated by it because of his travels that started when he was a teenager, old enough to hitchhike out west from Virginia and give my Grandma a conniption, and to cowboy enough to earn his keep on the ranch of some distant relatives for a summer. He kept going back over the years, and the picture is from one of the trips when my Mom went with him, squatting on the sunlit plains in that pretty golden light.

It's a book lovingly written. McMurtry gives his characters space to fill out and take on a life of their own. In some ways they have the stock traits you would expect -- the laconic loner Call, the good-time gambler and womanizer Spoon, and the loquacious dispenser of droll cowboy humor MacRae. There's a full cast of cowboys, Indians, whores, and outlaws, but they all manage to rise out of their stock characters and do surprising, touching, and, often, desperate things.

The basic outline of the story follows the Hat Creek outfit several years after the Civil War. Ex-Texas Rangers Call and MacRae, who have fought the Comanches and Kiowa, and protected the Texas settlers along the Mexican border, have settled down to trade horses and sell cows with a collection of hands, some of them from their Rangering days, which are now over. When their old friend and cohort Spoon arrives running from trouble he caused in Arkansas as a drifting gambler, he shakes them out of their routine of raiding for horses and cattle in Mexic0 with the idea of driving cattle to Montana and claiming the wild land there, which is still harried by the northern tribes and remains mostly unsettled.

The Hat Creek boys light out for Montana, and the perils of the long drive of three-thousand miles serves as the backdrop for the action. Deaths are varied and constant as they traverse the wide open plains, stalked by an array of dangers including bandits, Indians, wild animals and unrelenting weather. There are female characters in this world of men: the unfortunate Lorena Wood, an implacable prostitute who falls in with Spoon on the promise that he will leave the drive along the way and take her to San Francisco, only to be captured by a vicious Indian bandit called Blue Duck; another prostitute, who has married a hapless, small-town sheriff on the trail of Spoon; and independent Clara, MacRae's longtime love, who has married a horse-trader and moved north to the Nebraska plains.

The world that McMurtry creates is one that visits misfortune and terror on both the just and the unjust, but one thing that it often rewards -- at least for awhile -- is competence. Call and MacRae have already built outsize reputations for themselves as Rangers and their abilities have allowed them to reach their golden years, still able to out-fight and out-think anyone who challenges them. Call and MacRae are one of the great literary duos -- as different as two men can be, but tied to each other through mutual loyalty and shared history. It's old-fashioned stuff but I like old-fashioned. And of course, I couldn't read it without thinking of Cormac McCarthy and thinking about where they sort of dovetail and where they diverge with their visions of the west. No doubt, McMurtry stays a little closer to the myth that McCarthy both punctures and extends -- mostly by creating a slightly-altered myth, peering from America's "manifest destiny" record of murder and pillage to an apocalyptic future.

I've often pondered the lives of those first pioneers and all that they faced and endured to stake their claims. The hardships and dangers seem nearly unimaginable to a soft, lily-livered creature like me, but I suppose people have always plunged into things blithely unaware of the reality, and then just had to survive once they were in it. I guess, if I had stumbled into it like that, I'd just be stuck with the situation, which is probably how most people ended up. I may yet see the Bighorn Mountains and the Milk River one day, relying primarily on my competence in avoiding being eaten by a big Grizzly bear. I think I can do it.