Friday, December 7, 2007

Brick By Brick

America is a country of immigrants. Unless you're native, all of our ancestors came from somewhere else. It's the really great thing about this country, but it also means our "culture" is a mish-mash. To put it bluntly, we took a bunch of customs/beliefs/whatever from other places and twisted them around to fit our needs. To my way of thinking Americans have only come up with three original ideas - jazz music, baseball and the western.

Lonesome Dove has, over the last 20-odd years, morphed into the seminal western. It tells the story of the Hat Creek Cattle Company run by a small group of former Texas Rangers who decided to bed down in tiny Lonesome Dove, Texas once they chased all the Indians out of the territory. Their leader is Captain Woodrow Call with the court jester role being ably played by Augustus McCrae. Call believes in hard work and celibacy (he doesn't have much use for women) while Gus enjoys his whiskey and women. While they occasionally steal horses from Mexico, life is by and large passing them by in one big blur. Then their former compatriot, Jake Spoon, rolls into town talking about Montana. It's wild, untamed, breathtakingly beautiful, and perfect cattle country. That's all it takes. Call gets a bug up his butt, wrangles up some steers, assembles a motley crew of cowboys, and hits the road for Montana.

The trick to any book of this length (945 pages long thankyouverymuch) is that you need to get past the set-up. In this case, it took me about 200 pages to really get into the story. During that time McMurtry is introducing the characters and laying the foundation. And what characters they are! It's the strength of this book. Gus and Call are different men with one thing in common - their wandering, exploring spirit. There is also the menagerie that makes up the Hat Creek outfit; my favorites among them being Newt, the teen boy who is Call's son even if he won't admit it and Deets, a free black man prior to the war, the smartest guy of the bunch, and a world-class tracker.

It's not until Jake Spoon rolls into town that any sort of plot shows up, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out that he's the oil that greases the wheels. He's a cross between Peter Pan and Casanova. A man who wouldn't know responsibility if it bit him in the ass, who earns his living on cards, and sweet talks every whore that crosses his path. When he sweet talks Lorena, the beautiful blonde working girl in Lonesome Dove, issues are further complicated, as Call and Gus soon find themselves saddled with a woman on their long cattle drive.

The women in this story tend to be very hard on the men. For a while I felt that they were too hard on them, but by the last 200 pages I wanted to leap through the pages and strangle anyone with a penis. Thankfully McMurtry must have been thinking of potential female readers, because he gives us Clara, who makes Maggie Osborne's heroines look like genteel southern belles. Needless to say I loved her. There's a scene between Clara and Call towards the end of the book that pretty much makes the book for me. She gives it to him with both barrels, and by God, he deserves it. Boy, does he deserve it. This is also the point where my tears began to flow freely.

I appreciate this novel for the grand, sweeping epic that it is. I enjoyed it immensely, but it ain't perfect. (Sorry Pulitzer Prize committee!)

The problem with Lonesome Dove is me. I cut my teeth on genre fiction at the tender age of 12, and that's where the problem lies. 99% of my reading is genre fiction, which means I've come to expect that books should end. Lonesome Dove doesn't "end," it merely "stops." McMurtry does tie up some things, but the vast majority of the characters (the ones left standing anyway) are left hanging. Off the top of my head (for those of you who have read it), Clara, Lorena, July and Dish are all begging for closure. However the one that really sticks in my craw is Newt. Newt needs closure dagnabit!

Ultimately I think that will be the issue for hard core genre types. The ending that just "stops" and the fact that McMurtry likes to kill off his characters. I made the mistake of getting attached and yes, there were tears involved (I do not, as a general rule, cry over books).

I'm not sure how to grade this book. I loved it, but the lack of a proper ending annoyed me. And while I know this story will "stick" with me for a long time, I don't see myself rereading it. So Final Grade = B+.


Kristie (J) said...

I don't think I'll attempt the one - that many pages gives me the heebie jeebies, but I've enjoyed reading your reading of it :) I also don't think I'd enjoy a book where key characters die or the book just stops with no clear ending.
But thanks immensely for your thoughts on it!!

Alie said...

I'm not much of a Western fiction girl myself, but I did enjoy the television series they made out of this. Scott Bairstow played Call I believe and he was sex on a stick lol.

Wendy said...

Alie: Looks like Scott Bairstow played Newt Call on the short lived Lonesome Dove TV series in the mid-90s. At the time Lonesome Dove takes place - Woodrow Call hasn't officially claimed Newt has his son so he goes by the name of Newt Dobbs.

I'm planning on watching the mini-series eventually - and that features Tommy Lee Jones as Capt. Woodrow Call.

Kristie: Yeah, nobody's sacred. Several key players bite the dust in this one. It makes for a very emotional read.

Nora Roberts said...

I loved this book. I love McMurtry, but this one particularly. (Great mini-series, too). But, Wendy, you're absolutely right. It just stops. I'd have to say that mostly McMurtry books just stop.

And he tends to stop on a down note--which KILLS me. Still, I love his work. He involves you, sucks you in and makes you see and feel every character.

Wendy said...

Nora: This was a tough book for me to "review" because I really was swept up in it - but the ending (or lack thereof) just killed me! But if you're a character junkie (like I tend to be) this was an incredible book. Once I got through the "set up" I was totally wrapped up in it.

~ames~ said...

Woot! Congrats on finishing the "brick." LOL