Chapter 30: “Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurtry (1986)

“I’m glad I’ve been wrong enough to keep in practice. . . You can’t avoid it, you’ve got to learn to handle it. If you only come face to face with your own mistakes once or twice in your life it’s bound to be extra painful. I face mine every day–that way they ain’t usually much worse than a dry shave.”

Almost two full weeks into the month, the February reading challenge is finally over. It took everything in me to get through this book (and once he finishes, Joshua will tell you the same), but I finished Larry McMurtry’s 1986 Pulitzer-winning novel, Lonesome Dove, at 11pm on Friday, February 11.

My edition of this novel was a long, grueling 821 pages that sprawled the distance from Southern Texas to Northern Montana and back again. And when I finished reading the last word, closed the book, and dropped it to the floor next to the couch I was laying on, I truly felt like I was the one who had made the treacherous journey there and back.

This book did nothing but exhaust me. All the way through, from beginning to end, I felt like a marathon runner that was perpetually hitting the proverbial wall—paragraph after paragraph, page after page. McMurtry annoyed me, angered me, infuriated me even. I cannot tell you how many times I called Joshua after finishing a chapter or two just to say, “Joshua. This is the dumbest book I have ever read.” And, every single time, all he could do was agree.

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I’ve got to be honest—I have no idea where to start with my criticisms of this novel. So, maybe I should start off this review with the things I enjoyed about the book.

So, let’s see. Um…. Well. Ummmm…. This is even harder than figuring out where to start my criticisms.

Oh! I’ve got it.

The book didn’t bore me to tears. Despite its heft, despite its length, despite the overwhelming “lull to action” ratio, and even despite McMurtry’s absolutely horrendous writing, Lonesome Dove, at the very least, kept my interest. There were several points during it where I would’ve much rather been reading something else, but at least I wasn’t bored to the point of putting the book away and accepting defeat.

Another thing I’ll give Lonesome Dove is that it was a good story with really well-developed characters. In fact, the characters might have been a little too well-developed.

(Segues into criticisms)

McMurtry spent way too much time and invested way too many words into developing the story instead of telling the story. This novel was 821 pages, but could have easily been truncated into half that and the story wouldn’t have suffered a great loss. In fact, the story probably would have been much more engaging that way. The story of this novel was basically this: a bunch of cowboys (led by Gus and Captain Call) decided to head from Lonesome Dove, Texas up to Montana to start up a cattle ranch, then headed there and encountered a bunch of trials and tribulations along the way, then Gus dies and wishes to be buried back in Lonesome Dove, so Call takes his dead body all the way back to honor his wishes.

In a nutshell, that’s the story. Granted, there were a lot of sidebars to the story—a lot of love interests, and relationships gone awry. Be that as it may, it took me all of one sentence to recap the gist of the story.

In McMurtry’s rendering, however, it takes 821 pages. In fact, it took McMurtry a whopping TWENTY SEVEN CHAPTERS to narrate the time it takes for the cowboys to decide to move to Montana to the time that they actually leave Lonesome Dove. TWENTY SEVEN CHAPTERS dedicated to nearly pointless dialogue, lengthy expository, character development, and back story. Now, I realize it takes time to fully develop a cast as numerous as this ensemble, but 27 chapters? Seriously? It was like reading Ayn Rand’s classic example of all character development and no story, Atlas Shrugged, all over again. “All sizzle and no steak,” as they say.

To make matters worse, some of the most important, action-packed scenes in the novel—like violent encounters with murderous Indians, barroom brawls, gunfights in the streets, and other disputes—are merely glossed over by McMurtry. There were times when I read a scene and had to go back and re-read it because I thought I had missed something; after 20 pages or so of describing how the landscape looked, or how the characters were feeling, McMurtry would detail a really tense run-in with Indians in a couple paragraphs, then go right back to focusing on the landscape for another ten pages. In the midst of a couple dozen pages, one of the main characters would wind up dead and I was so horribly fatigued by McMurtry’s over-narration that I wouldn’t even realize what had happened!

And maybe I’d feel differently about McMurtry’s narrative if it were actually written well. Unfortunately (at least this is the case with this particular novel), McMurtry is absolute shite at writing prose. There were so many occasions where he was clearly attempting to be clever and poetic whilst describing the landscape or the look on a character’s face, but every single time he fell flat on his face.

Don’t even get me started on the dew…

Then, if that weren’t bad enough, his voice would change throughout the novel! So the reader would be stuck with half-baked poetic prose, then a gem of a sentence like this one: “Roscoe was half asleep in his saddle when a bad thing happened.” His prose didn’t improve any with this little ditty: “She was sad.”

Again, this is the only thing by McMurtry I’ve ever read (and the only thing by him I intend to ever read), so I can’t let Lonesome Dove define my opinion of his overall writing abilities, but I can sure as hell tell you that this novel was one of the worst written books I’ve ever read.

It’s almost as if McMurtry were participating in NaNoWriMo and, in a race against the calendar, was just writing for the sake of writing.

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Another note on time-management—it is nearly impossible to figure out McMurtry’s estimation of how much time it takes to do certain tasks (like a 27 chapter decision to move to Montana, or an 80-chapter trek across the country, or a 2-chapter trek back across the country). There were countless occasions where I had been reading and reading and reading for hours and the wagon train was still in the same damn place they were when I first started reading and I would literally cry out, “Seriously!? How long is this going to take??” Then, before I knew it, the wagon train was 500 more miles into their journey! Both McMurtry’s time lapse and geographical locations made absolutely no sense.

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Speaking of things not making sense, there was McMurtry’s insistence on character overlapping. Somehow, every character in this book by the end of the novel knew each other, regardless of where they were from. This feature of the book is a bit hard to explain without giving away too much of the plot, but suffice it to say that the film Magnolia has absolutely nothing on this novel’s “character interconnectedness.”

Here’s a magnificent example: Blue Duck, the villain, kidnaps Lorie, the “damsel in distress.” Gus sets out to rescue her and in the middle of the wide-open Midwestern plains, he runs into July Johnson, a sheriff from Arkansas. Now, Johnson left Arkansas to track down Jake Spoon, a cowboy guilty of killing Johnson’s brother in law, but he gave up on that chase when he learned that his wife had run away from home right after he left, so he decided to head to Nebraska to track her down instead. So, on his way to Nebraska, he suddenly, and for no reason, pops up in the middle of the Plains and runs into Gus and they fight Blue Duck’s posse together. Now, here’s the impossible part: if McMurtry was telling the story with any sort of consistency, Johnson had somehow backtracked some almost 500 miles to have this chance run-in with Gus in the middle of nowhere! Then, just as inexplicably as their chance encounter was, they parted ways only to have another couple run-ins with each other over the course of the next 60 chapters.

McMurtry does the impossible in this book and just strings the reader along, assuring us, “Trust me on this one. Just follow me and trust me.” But, by that point (which is a little less than halfway through the novel, mind you), you are so completely disenfranchised with the story that you don’t even care anymore. The only reason you’re still reading is because you’ve already read 400 pages and you can’t bring yourself to completely give up on that sort of time investment.

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Obviously, I don’t recommend this book to anyone. Unless you have a death wish. Then, by all means—go for it. But I cannot in good conscience ever recommend this book.

I have absolutely no idea how this novel managed to win a Pulitzer Prize. Seriously, my only guess is that politics were heavily involved. As Joshua and I are coming to find, the Pulitzer Prize is one of the most biased and political prizes in the arts and always has been (something that we will document when this project is finished) and I’m guessing that McMurtry was the benefactor of this.

The only other possibility that I can come up with is that it was merely awarded the Pulitzer Prize because it was the last Western novel that they were going to award the Prize to. Now, there may actually be something to this theory… Before its big win, a handful of Western novels won the Prize; since its win, none have. Furthermore, it was the last genre book to win the Pulitzer Prize—before it, most of the winners were either period pieces, war novels, Westerns, pioneer novels, political novels, or even romance; since its win, all of the winners have been genuine literary fiction. It is this reader’s opinion that perhaps the Pulitzer committee figured that there would never be a Western novel as epic as Lonesome Dove, so they decided to award it the Prize as a last huzzah for Western novels. I only have two pieces of evidence for this suspicion: the first, of course, is that no Western has won since; the second is that none of Cormac McCarthy’s incredible “Border Trilogy” (which consists of The Crossing, All the Pretty Horses, and No Country for Old Men) won the Prize.

Then again, there may be nothing to these claims at all.

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It’s funny—after reading it, I didn’t think anything else in this Pulitzer Project would even compare in awfulness to Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons. But, now, I’m not so sure. It and Lonesome Dove are definitely duking it out for that top (or, bottom) spot. The Magnificent Ambersons does have one thing going for it—it’s a respectable amount of pages for a crappy book. At least Tarkington doesn’t force you to endure an awfully written novel for 821 pages. Lonesome Dove, on the other hand, is the length of five novels put together! For no apparent reason, to boot!

I have to admit that I almost feel bad tearing down Lonesome Dove as much as I have been, because I legitimately enjoyed the story. You know—once I managed to wade knee-deep through all of McMurtry’s severely overwritten bullshit prose. If you can figure out a method to overlook that, Lonesome Dove will at least provide you a good story with a lot of human drama.

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One thought on “Chapter 30: “Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurtry (1986)

  1. Just finished Lonesome Dove myself last night. Oy. I jumped on the net this morning to see if I was the only one in the world who thought this novel sucked. Thankfully, I found your review and realized I'm not crazy after all. How this thing won the pulitzer is beyond me. If this novel can win the pulitzer than there's hope for all aspiring writers, I'm starting my novel tonight! haha.

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