The Pequod Review:
Despite winning the 1986 Pulitzer Prize and being adapted into a very good 1989 TV miniseries, Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove seems to have disappeared in recent years from both popular and critical memory. Which is a shame, since it is a truly exceptional Western epic, full of realistic characters and unusually strong dialogue. From the outset, McMurtry writes in rich prose with a strong sense of place (in 1870s rural Texas):
When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake — not a very big one. It had probably just been crawling around looking for shade when it ran into the pigs. They were having a fine tug-of-war with it, and its rattling days were over. The sow had it by the neck, and the shoat had the tail.
“You pigs git,” Augustus said, kicking the shoat. “Head on down to the creek if you want to eat that snake.” It was the porch he begrudged them, not the snake. Pigs on the porch just made things hotter, and things were already hot enough. He stepped down into the dusty yard and walked around to the springhouse to get his jug. The sun was still high, sulled in the sky like a mule, but Augustus had a keen eye for sun, and to his eye the long light from the west had taken on an encouraging slant.
Evening took a long time getting to Lonesome Dove, but when it came it was a comfort. For most of the hours of the day — and most of the months of the year — the sun had the town trapped deep in dust, far out in the chaparral flats, a heaven for snakes and horned toads, roadrunners and stinging lizards, but a hell for pigs and Tennesseans. There was not even a respectable shade tree within twenty or thirty miles; in fact, the actual location of the nearest decent shade was a matter of vigorous debate in the offices—if you wanted to call a roofless barn and a couple of patched-up corrals offices — of the Hat Creek Cattle Company, half of which Augustus owned.
And some of his nature scenes are powerful and vivid too:
The eastern sky was red as coals in a forge, lighting up the flats along the river. Dew had wet the million needles of the chaparral, and when the rim of the sun edged over the horizon the chaparral seemed to be spotted with diamonds. A bush in the backyard was filled with little rainbows as the sun touched the dew.
It was tribute enough to sunup that it could make even chaparral bushes look beautiful, Augustus thought, and he watched the process happily, knowing it would only last a few minutes. The sun spread reddish-gold light through the shining bushes, among which a few goats wandered, bleating. Even when the sun rose above the low bluffs to the south, a layer of light lingered for a bit at the level of the chaparral, as if independent of its source. The the sun lifted clear, like an immense coin. The dew quickly died, and the light that filled the bushes like red dirt dispersed, leaving clear, slightly bluish air.
It was good reading light by then, so Augustus applied himself for a few minutes to the Prophets. He was not overly religious, but he did consider himself a fair prophet and liked to study the styles of his predecessors. They were mostly too long-winded, in his view, and he made no effort to read them verse for verse — he just had a look here and there, while the biscuits were browning.
McMurtry's book does so many things so well — the story is by turns funny, thrilling, tragic and loving — and it shows life in all of its complexity, with few happy endings or tidy resolutions. It is over 800 pages, sprawling and intricate, but it is such an enchanting story that you hate to see it end. Highly recommended.