Lonesome Dove is one of the best novels I’ve read, ever, and as much as I like physical books it may be easier to read on a Kindle: at more than 800 large, physical pages, it takes space. But that may be appropriate to the content, ranging as it does from Texas to Montana in the age of horse. I couldn’t decide whether the novel is any good until about 400 pages in, when a sudden-seeming shift happened. Lonesome Dove seems mostly comic, tonally, at first, with characters sitting around and speculating to each other. But then one finds that unexpected, brutal, and shocking shift, like a standard romantic comedy morphing into science fiction when the aliens land.
Don’t quit two hundred pages in, though you’ll be tempted to. As with The Name of the Rose, another of those fantastical, insane works I wish someone had forced me to read sooner than I got hold of it, patience is rewarded.
I’m reminded of James Wood’s remark about how good novels deploy “different registers:” “One way to tell slick genre prose from really interesting writing is to look, in the former case, for the absence of different registers. An efficient thriller will often be written in a style that is locked into place: the musical analogue of this might be a tune proceeding in unison, the melody separated only by octave intervals, without any harmony in the middle.” Richer novels are supposed to be polyphonic. Lonesome Dove isn’t. The narrative viewpoint scans from character to character, but they share a linguistic world that reflects their time and place. To Wood that’s a problem but to me it’s a shared world reflected in ideas and language. The common world has its own strange beauty, reflected in metaphors tied to the land and to fighting on horseback.
In Lonesome Dove characters often bury stories within stories within stories, sometimes in dialogue and usually not, describing the way things came to be. If those stories weren’t so damn interesting they’d be a crisis. But if “be interesting” is the first command to any artist, Lonesome Dove follows it. The world it depicts is implacable and hard and full of rational and irrational people. Like these:
The shadow of Augustus McCrae had hung over their courtship; Bob had never known why she chose him over the famous Ranger, or over any of the other men she could have had. In her day she had been the most sought-after girl in Texas, and yet she had married him, and followed him to the Nebraska plains, and stayed and worked beside him. It was hard country for women, Bob knew that. Women died, went crazy or left. The wife of their nearest neighbor, Maude Jones, had killed herself with a shotgun one morning, leaving a note which merely said, “Can’t stand listening to this wind no more.”
Leaving out the “a” in “It was hard country” seems odd but, again, part of the linguistic universe. One feels very rich, reading Lonesome Dove as a contemporary person with immediate access to infinite information, much as one feels rich and also terribly sad reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers. Other worlds exist now and have existed before, and it’s useful to remember them—and to think of how the future world will be different from the present.
Much of Lonesome Dove, on its own, seems basic, yet as a whole it’s beautiful. Like this:
The other men were easy to talk to, but they didn’t know anything. If one stopped to think about it, it was depressing how little most men learned in their lifetimes. Pea eye was a prime example. Though loyal and able and brave, Pea had never displayed the slightest ability to learn from his experience, though his experience was considerable. Time and again he would walk up on the wrong side of a horse that was known to kick, and then look surprised when he got kicked.
If I were James Wood I wouldn’t like “prime example” (it’s a cliché), but here it’s fine. The eye passes over it, and it’s the sort of cliché Call (who speaks here) would use. We see Call’s mind on horses, and we can generalize from the sort of person who is always surprised by a horse’s obvious behavior to a person we know, who is equally puzzled when he misses the obvious. Horses are as ubiquitous to Lonesome Dove as computers are to modern Americans.
There is an odd fatalistic determinism in the novel that is again not easy to parse out in a sentence quote but that is easy to feel. In the quote above we see that Pea Eye is who he is; the next paragraph starts, “Deets was different. Deets observed, he remembered,” as if that too arises from nothing. Almost no one in the novel has formal schooling, yet some minds race ahead while others are as lame as overriden horses. One sees other examples of this that I won’t share, because they spoil vital plot points.
It’s hard to say what you might expect going in, or what I expected going in, but whatever I expected wasn’t what I got. Usually novels about the west feel silly, pointless, and remote to me; this one is sophisticated, especially about ways of being and about gender relations. It’s never dogmatic, either: Augustus and Call are opposites in many ways, but the narrative voice never seems to choose one over the other as the two debate and act throughout the novel (in this respect the narrative voice is polyphonic, even if the characters think and sound characteristically similar).
The novel’s last sentences are strange and haunting.
There is enough in this novel to spend many years unpacking and experiencing it.
I fear to read the second one, for fear that the sequel won’t match the original, yet I also feel I have to do it.