Streets of Laredo

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In 1981, Larry McMurtry, who had left his native state to live in Washington, D.C., excoriated fellow Texas writers for wallowing in a pastoral myth of cowboys and cattle drives. In a lengthy, mordant essay, “Ever a Bridegroom: Reflections on the Failure of Texas Literature,” that took up most of the October 23 issue of The Texas Observer, McMurtry insisted that Texas has not produced any major writers because its most promising talents have been content to work redundant variations on a simplistic, sentimental frontier narrative. Contemporary Texas, he contended, is an urban world of freeways and shopping malls, and its literature should reflect that fact. McMurtry himself has written about contemporary urban life, most notably in Terms of Endearment (1975). Four years after dismissing Texas authors for insularity and insipid nostalgia, however, he himself turned to the pastoral myth of cowboys and cattle drives, revivifying the frontier West in what became his most successful novel, Lonesome Dove (1985), which won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize and the hearts of even hardened critics, was McMurtry’s greatest popular triumph. Its 1989 reincarnation as a television miniseries, starring Robert Duvall as Augustus McCrae and Tommy Lee Jones as Woodrow Call, was another success both commercially and critically and catapulted McMurtry’s book back onto the best-seller list. A daring final trail drive by the plucky Hat Creek outfit, from Lonesome Dove in south Texas to Montana’s Milk River, made McMurtry rich, famous, and president of the American chapter of the prestigious writers’ organization PEN. “Once a writer manages to write a book that gives a reader pleasure,” wrote McMurtry, who has now given pleasure eighteen times, “his duty, presumably, is to repeat the book.” Though he claimed to disdain that duty, McMurtry has been a prolific producer of sequels. He followed up The Last Picture Show (1966) with Texasville (1987). Terms of Endearment with The Evening Star (1992), and All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers (1972) with Some Can Whistle (1989). Now personally reestablished in his childhood town of Archer City, Texas, McMurtry has revisited Lonesome Dove with Streets of Laredo. Its title page identifies the new book as a sequel, as do the presence of Woodrow Call, Pea Eye Parker, and other characters from Lonesome Dove. Both books, however, derive from a screenplay, called “Streets of Laredo,” that McMurtry wrote for Warner Brothers in 1972. The script was abandoned when rejected by its intended stars, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and James Stewart.

In addition to quotations from Francois-Auguste-Rene de Chateaubriand and the Book of Ruth, McMurtry appropriates four lines from “Streets of Laredo,” the popular musical lament for a slain cowboy, as epigraph to his latest novel. He sets much more of its action on the open expanses along the Texas-Mexico border than on the streets of Laredo or any of the other Southwestern towns through which his characters pass. More crucial to the plot are the streets of Ojinaga, the town in northern Chihuahua where characters converge for the climactic events of the novel. (Though several of the principal characters are Mexican, everyone speaks in fluent English.) Still, the elegiac tone of the nineteenth century song is certainly appropriate to McMurtry’s Streets of Laredo, where failure and death haunt every human aspiration. Like Lonesome Dove, the sequel evokes a somber, brutal world in which those who manage to endure the harshness of the natural elements often succumb to the fiercer cruelty of fellow human beings and to their own despair. Rape, murder, and suicide are frequent and casual. Though McMurtry defies his own advice and returns to the rural frontier, he rejects the triumphalist interpretation of Western history, the proud account of how modern Texas civilization emerged from an arduous, courageous victory over primitive human and natural forces. The Old West according to another traditional song was a place where seldom was heard a discouraging word, but McMurtry portrays it as an enormous stage where seldom is heard any other kind. “Life’s but a knife edge, anyway,” declares Charles Goodnight, a real-life cattleman recruited into the fiction as a witness to loss. “Sooner or later people slip and get cut.”

The first image that greets the reader of Streets of Laredo is of a man who is as out of place on the frontier as are most of us. Ned Brookshire is a timorous accountant from Brooklyn dispatched to Amarillo for an unusual auditing assignment. His overbearing boss, Colonel Sheridan Terry, has ordered Brookshire to accompany the Texas Ranger hired to stop the outlaw Joey Garza, who has been robbing the railroad. Brookshire is to supervise the expedition’s expenses. A neophyte at riding horses and shooting guns, he initially lacks the courage...

(The entire section is 2033 words.)