Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 578
Larry McMurtry is the author of numerous novels set in the American West, including four that feature Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call. Ordered chronologically according to the events these novels depict, they are Dead Man’s Walk (1995), Comanche Moon (1997), Lonesome Dove, and Streets of Laredo (1993). Enjoying tremendous popularity, Lonesome Dove is the best of these novels and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in 1986. In 1989, the novel was made into a television miniseries that starred Robert Duvall as McCrae and Tommy Lee Jones as Call.
Though Lonesome Dove is often labeled a Western, critics debate the extent of its allegiance to the conventions and themes of that genre. Because it does not wholly embrace or reject the myths of the Old West, the novel is difficult to categorize as either traditional or revisionist. The characters of McCrae and Call exemplify the impassive violence of real-life Texas Rangers, as well as the human decency and honorable codes of fictional Western heroes. At nearly 850 pages, the novel might have sprawled, but intersections among characters and convergences of plot lines keep the story tightly knit.
The novel tells an adventure story and features a number of characters on various romantic quests, and critics have noted McMurtry’s debt to Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605, 1615). In addition, it is a study of character in action. In a way similar to novels by Charles Dickens and George Eliot, Lonesome Dove centers on a large cast of characters whose lives intersect as they live and work together. The town of Lonesome Dove, the Hat Creek Cattle Company, and the Western plains from northern Mexico to Texas to Montana become the loci of the characters’ interactions.
Most often, McMurtry’s characters act according to the dictates of their natures. Jake Spoon, for example, takes up with murderers because he is an aimless pleasure seeker. Acting in his natural role as caretaker, Deets is killed while trying to protect a blind Indian child. Driven to control all personal weakness, which for him includes sexual desire, Call cannot admit he is Newt’s father. The version of the Latin motto that Gus carves on the company’s sign has been translated as “a grape is changed by living with other grapes,” suggesting for certain critics the novel’s central theme that a person’s character may most positively develop when in contact with others.
Newt and, surprisingly, Call change the most over the course of the novel. Among the work’s many plot lines is Newt’s growing maturity, representing a bildungsroman among numerous plots of decline. By novel’s end, Newt is an accomplished cowboy, a natural tamer of horses, and a promising leader, though he is also self-isolating. Call, seemingly the most static of the characters, also changes. Gus’s death leaves him bereft, and he begins to doubt the certainty of his actions. This man of action—a staple of American adventure stories—is ultimately depicted as vulnerable.
Indeed, melancholy pervades Lonesome Dove. Although it features the tenaciously cheerful Gus McCrae, who generates much of the novel’s humor, the book repeatedly dramatizes loss and longing. The relentless passage of time, the inevitability of death, and the inexplicable meanderings of the heart leave most of the characters suffering from the ache of sorrow. The nineteenth century American West portrayed in Lonesome Dove thus feels contemporary, for it is a place less of national glory attained than of personal trials endured.