Halfway through Larry McMurty’s Lonesome Dove, I actually started to enjoy it. If that sounds like a terrible beginning to a review, then pin the blame on my snobbish reading habits: you might be shocked, but a 950 page Western novel where the main action consists in driving cattle up to Montana and the male protagonists refer to women as knives just waiting to be sharpened isn’t usually something I’d pick up with glee.
But as reading outside your usual sphere of interest is always something which yields, ahem, curious results, I’m glad I persevered with the novel. All 950 pages of it. Lonesome Dove follows a vivid, eclectic cast of adventurous Texan cowboys as they shuttle cattle up to the enticing pastures of Montana, encountering a psychopathic Native American, three (yes, only three) women, an insipid sheriff and a whole slew of enervating characters along the way. Assuming that McMurtry’s intention was to capture the way in which the cowboys thought back in the 1880s Wild West (a whole lot of problematic portrayal of minorities, not to mention women whose whole lives revolve around scummy men), one truly stunning thing about this novel is the depth of narration and characterisation. Every single line vibrates with a character’s true, unadulterated voice: from the convincing slang to the unmistakeable opinion, the level of characterisation is something that you only notice when you look at the novel closely, but it can’t be denied that McMurtry has, with evident skill, constructed a vast maze of characters and voices that all appear tangibly real.
That being said, it’s an accomplishment that is difficult to sustain in a novel of this mammoth length. Just as I was warming to the steadily paced, action-heavy narrative (spoiler: prepare for death and weightily descriptive violence), the characters suddenly began to annoy me. Situations veered out of control and took implausible turns. ‘Augustus!’, I nearly yelled at the book. ‘Why are you doing this?’ But as invested as I was, I was compelled to keep reading and discover how it ends. And it was a somewhat limp ending, for such a vivacious book; with unwieldy, previously underexplored themes cropping up to dominate the last few chapters, and characters left purposeless and abandoned.
It’s difficult to summarise such a massive book in a few hundred words. Don’t expect lyrical prose, or subtle storytelling, or entirely consistent plotting. Ignore your usual rules, and just let yourself be swept up into the story. Blue pigs and all.
Image credit: Lonesome Dove mini-series, 1989