I hung on to reading McMurtry’s Woodrow Call/Gus McCrae cycle for for several reasons – sheer stubbornness and the fact that I had purchased all four of them for pennies on the dollar at various library book sales being chief among them – but eventually I just gave up on Dead Man’s Walk, Comanche Moon, Lonesome Dove and Streets of Laredo when it turned into a long and frustrating slog through the deserts of the metaphorical southwest. I gave up hope of reaching the end, rejoicing and acclaiming the author as one of the epochal bards of the Texas frontier after having completed Dead Man’s Walk, a third of Comanche Moon, and half a dozen chapters of Lonesome Dove. I decided instead to pack it in for the moment and explore the options of anaesthetized root canal work, or the whole season run of Bridezillas. Hey, at least there, I can root for some of the more sane family members and friends of the bridal party and hope that a much-harassed and totally-out-of-patience MOH will haul off and serve up the ‘Zilla-of-the-moment with a richly-deserved knuckle sandwich. The hope of some kind of drama strung me along for … well, it seemed like days.
I had hoped that something would happend, mostly because everyone else says such wonderful things about the Lonesome Dove cycle, including some of my very own dear fans who have, most flatteringly compared my books to his – on the basis, I think, that I wrote about frontier Texas, and had a hero who was an early Texas Ranger, and included lashings of war, local and historic color, tragic romance and the fading of the Old West. Of course, the lucky Mr. McMurtry got a whole couple of TV miniseries made from his books, (with surging royalties and residuals and all, and reissued paperbacks with stills of the stars on the covers, all of which would make his agent worth every penny of the 15% of which Mr. McMurtry earns out of his labors as a creative scribbler and raconteur of the Old West) and so it isn’t all just sour-grapes from an aspiring author, hardly blessed or even barely noticed by the literary-industrial complex … ohhh, do I get any recognition for having written a totally complicated and sort-of-run-on-sentence in the Grand Victorian Tradition? (Oh, guess not, not this time around – better move on, then.)
The first hurdle in my path of acceptance was that it was all build-up and character, but no actual delivery. I was sorta-intrigued, but not-really grabbed by interest, in the characters so delineated. I keep wondering why the deadpan flat, detached affect? Why should I care about various characters if the author doesn’t seem to give a damn about them, or even display much interest, other than in the strictly clinical? As a reader I was also a little exhausted by following the constant leaping one character’s POV to another, and another within the same chapter, and just when I had recovered from the last of them and remember who it was that I was supposed to be interested in – then I would trip and fall flat over a large chunk of expository back-story, which never seemed to lead to anything much happening. A friend of mine, also a fan of both McMurtry and I explained to me that this is very much a Texas thing, to meander and meander, and wander … eventually to come around in a circle again, without anything very much having happened. Apparently, the process of the story is supposed to be the main bit of enjoyment. So how was a couple of hours of heavy petting, leading nowhere other than a chaste kiss of the hand at the doorway supposed to be rewarding – when you have been led in happy anticipation to look for something a bit more energetic? When this happens, romantically, one tends to be a bit disappointed, think of the other party as a dreadful tease, write off the evening as a waste of time and make-up, and resolve to let the answering machine pick-up next time. With a best-selling, and to all appearances, very popular author, who started off Lonesome Dove with one of the very best opening sentences evah … well, maybe one should be a little more indulgent.
Alas – I had a bit of trouble with another aspect of the cycle, especially the earlier books, in being a bit of an amateur specialist in history. That is, amateur in the antique sense of a person who zestfully acquires knowledge for the sheer love of the field. I have no academic training, other than that required of English majors three decades ago, not even a minor in history, or any fancy qualifying initials after my name – only a burning passion to learn as much as I can about any particular aspect, and to get it right, and to weave that knowledge into my stories. Which is all very well, but has absolutely ruined me for watching westerns on television; don’t even get me started on the fantasy west, of pulp novels and TV series and movies. I’m too apt to notice that there is a zipper down the back of the heroine’s dress, that the traveling cowboy is camping with a lot more gear than he could have packed into a teensy bedroll on the back of his horse, and to wonder where in the heck in the old West that a a deep-rock gold mine could be located right next to a cattle ranch?
Plowing gamely through the first two books – Dead Man’s Walk and Comanche Moon turned out to be a bit of a disconcerting experience, as I keep running across names, historic characters and incidents of Texas history but as if someone had jumbled them all together in a small box, and then emptied them out in random order, omitted some pivotal incidents and people, exaggerated others for effect, and now and again threw in something completely bizarre, just rang off-key for me. The real Buffalo Hump wasn’t a hunchback, if the description of him at Meusebach’s peace conference is anything to go by. The real Bigfoot Wallace lived to die of ripe old age; he drew life from a jar of dried beans in Mexican captivity … which incident happened to the survivors of the Meir expedition, not the Texan attempt to take Santa Fe a few years later. Austin was never raided, looted and burned over by a Comanche raiding party – that happened to Linnville, in 1840 – and the aftermath of that involved a massed force of Rangers, local militia and volunteers giving as good as they got in the Plum Creek fight. And there really was a formidible whore nick-named “The Great Western”, so it all makes me wonder why McMurtry needed to make anything up, when what really happened historically would have made at least as much of a good story. And it is a bit of puzzlement, wondering how the early Rangers in the first two books are pretty consistently pictured as being neophytes, hopeless little golden carp in a sea of hungry sharks – a tasty mouthful for every passing predator … which reminds me of the character who was neatly scalped of all of his hair by Buffalo Hump going past at a gallop. I’m almost sure scalping someone took a little bit more than a single swipe with a knife from horseback, although if anyone had perfected the art of a ride-by scalping, it would have been the Comanche.
It sounded a bit improbable to me, anyway – and the hapless recipient of it appearing to be as disposable as any of the red-shirted crewmen on Star Trek, beaming down to an alien planet and being killed in the first act. And that sort of disposing of a character, and other characters, and having characters appear and disappear, and such strange and improbable turns of the plot, such as having a naked English noblewoman with leprosy and a pet snake sing a Verdi aria to bluff a party of hostile Indian warriors into letting a our heroes pass by … well, that was just too television for words, and I came to that realization with a certain shock of recognition. I know they’ve made the books into movies, or into miniseries, and that’s more right than readers and watchers could possibly have known – because it is more like one of the old television westerns than has been along in years! A jumble of historical events and happenstances, check – interminable, episodic adventures – check. Handful of basic, easily identifiable characters – check – some vicious and inscrutable villains (some of them with baroque torture chambers and suitable evil henchmen) – check. Rotating stable of supporting characters, and endless supply of disposable extras – check and check again. And a disconcerting tendency for certain startling shifts in the cast to occur between seasons …or between books . . . or even chapters within books. And there you go – it’s a TV western writ large; no wonder the Lonesome Dove cycle has so many fans. Having come to this conclusion, I may try again, sometime soon … but then again – when is Bridezillas on?