The Reading Life, Part Seven

I grew up on the plains but didn’t appreciate them because of all the big buildings around.  I recall one great view on a clear night, though: the Dallas skyline, blazing up out of the low ridges against a gaudy Texas sunset.  I’ve moved around a lot since then and developed a taste for geography: longleaf pine forests, hardwood-covered hills, rocky beaches, rocky mountains.  Each place with its own character and air quality and angle of light–if I were blindfolded and magically transported to Vancouver, Washington, or Chama, New Mexico, or Oak Ridge, Tennessee, I’d probably be able to tell where I was by the smell alone.  Before dawn the other day I was lying in our southwest field looking up at the stars, and became aware of the earth under my back–ponderously turning, still summer-warm and reliably solid.  This chunk of rock is a wonderland, and I’ve been privileged to see a lot much of it.

“There are places I remember”–such as northwest Oregon at Christmas time.  Our little family used to go to the beach for a few days because it was practically deserted and lodging rates were cut to the bone.  And it was there, within the sound of the breakers, that I first cracked open Lonesome Dove.

For all its celebrated use of character–and that’s why readers love it–Lonesome Dove is all about place.  It’s named for a place: where the odyssey begins, and also where it ends.  Dust-deep and shade-shy, Lonesome Dove on the Texas/Mexico border is about as desolate a location as a novelist could dream up: a scattering of rickety frame buildings and lumpy adobe, where cattle outnumber folks about ten to one.  Day after day, a stubborn sun frowns down and the stubborn land glares back, an exchange that’s hospitable mostly for scorpions, centipedes, and rattlesnakes. 

The chief citizens of this burg have spent their best years dashing across the plains in pursuit of outlaws and Comanches.  Their names–Augustus McRae and Captain Woodrow Call–have shimmered into legend while the men themselves have outlived their usefulness and settled into subsistence ranching.  Their future looks like a seasonal round of stealing cattle from their rival across the Rio Grande, who obligingly steals them back, when a former companero arrives with tales about Montana–acres of rich pasture and bracing breezes to be had for a song.  Captain Call feels the pull of one last adventure, and puts legs on the idea.  Thousands of legs, to go hundreds of miles, right through the middle of this great country.

That’s the story: an epic cattle drive, and the adventures had along the way.  It’s no easy task in the best of times and the worst times are often horrible.  Life on the plains whittles too many men down to their evil core, and it’s hard to police a space so huge.  Lawlessness often runs amok.  “Texas is heaven for men and horses, hell for women and pigs,” and the saying extends to Kansas, Nebraska, and the Nation (Oklahoma) too.  The gore gets rather deep sometimes, though probably not unrealistic for the time and place.  Larry McMurtry’s portrayal of women tends to strike one note, though to be fair, the milieu on which he writes is overbalanced with prostitutes.  Clara, Gus’s one-time sweetheart, is strong enough to make up for a host of brazen women, though Lorena as the chief feminine foil doesn’t quite fill the space marked out for her.  Much is made, and rightly, of the partnership of the two main characters, but as they travel north, eating the miles, it’s the land itself that sets the pace.     

Setting is an element of fiction that doesn’t always get its due.  Contemporary life with all its blinking lights distracts us from what’s directly under our feet or right in front of our eyes.  But in historical fiction it shouldn’t be slighted; we don’t appreciate how much a person’s surroundings seep into his character.  In Lonesome Dove, cattlemen, lawmen, and criminals are whipped up out of the same elements.  Space either fills them out to larger than life size–or it crushes them.  The story is full of characters who stride and stomp and crawl and stumble, matching their inborn stuff, right or wrong, to the great rolling plains.  There are rivers to cross and outsized weather to contend with: shimmering days and choking dust and drenching rains and blue lightning that crackles across the tossing long horns.  Every great scene has its backdrop, and there are lots of great scenes.  In one, Gus is running from a band of Indians across prairie so open there’s no place to hide.  Knowing his horse is on its last legs, he races to the one spot of relatively high ground, leaps off the horse, seizes the reins and cuts the animal’s throat, knowing that the smell of fresh blood will probably repel the mounts of his pursuers.  And so it does, buying him just enough time to fort up behind the carcass and make a defense. 

As they travel north the land rises and the air thins until their goal is within sight: the blue wind-whipped mountains of Montana.  It’s the kind of view that makes a man let down the traces and gallop hell-for-leather toward the peaks, which is exactly what Gus does.  The next minute, as devotees of the miniseries knows, he’s galloping madly back, pursued by a band of hostiles.  The arrow they plant in his leg proves to be his undoing, and the last few chapters are devoted to his partner Woodrow Call taking his friend’s body all the way back to Texas for burial.  It’s like Pilgrim’s Progress in reverse, stopping in at the some of the same haunts, checking up on characters left behind, tying up loose ends.  The story ends where it began: Lonesome Dove, where the glory has long since departed.  Good-bye, frontier; so long, old west.  The reality may never have quite lived up to the legend, but the earth beats on.  ‘It’s a fine world, Gus says, only hours before leaving it, “though rich in hardship at times.”

You can take me out of Texas, but you’ll never take Texas out of me.  I don’t really want to move back–it’s too hot (“Heat makes you tough,” says my sister, who still lives there).  But I’ll always be a Texan.  Though the terrain doesn’t tell the whole story, it tells a lot of it: the splashy sunsets, the subtle, eye-bulging contours, the sheer size and magnanimity.  It probably has something to do with why Friday Night Lights is my favorite TV show.  There’s a scene in the next-to-last season when the troubled youth Tim Riggins catches sight of a real-estate sign at the edge of a piece of rolling pasturage.  A river runs in the distance and mesquite trees bristle on the rise.  Emerging from his pickup to gaze in awe, he discovers the first thing in his life that he really wants.  (Besides Lila, whom he can’t have.)   “That’s really great,” he whispers.  “Texas forever.” 

Come on, Texans, can’t you hear the strains of Giant rising in the background?

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One Response to “The Reading Life, Part Seven”

  1. Loose Ends Sweetheart Says:

    […] The Reading Life, Part Seven It's like Pilgrim's Progress in reverse, stopping in at the some of the same haunts, checking up on characters left behind, tying up loose ends The story ends where it began: Lonesome Dove, where the glory has long since departed. […]

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