Lonesome Dove

March 29 2024

Book Reviews

Lonesome Dove

By Larry McMurtry

Published 1985

Fiction, Western

“. . . But he wasn't used to this part of the world. There’s accidents in life, and he met with a bad one. We may all do the same if we ain't careful.”

If you tend to hear the word “Western” and think: A good guy, a bad guy, a damsel in distress, a dusty saloon, and maybe some unfortunate racial stereotypes then you wouldn’t be wrong. But in the case of Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry, you wouldn’t be quite right either. For starters, it has sensitive portrayals of both non-white and female characters. Check. But in a larger sense, this book just doesn't romanticize the Wild West in the way that we’re used to. There’s no sense of folklore, no rose-colored patina. It’s full of tragedy, cruelty and heartbreak. And in that, real humanity. McMurtry’s wild west is far deeper and messier than your average spaghetti western and therefore, I believe, far more useful to us as readers.

The story follows Augustus “Gus” McCrae and Capt. Woodrow Call, two aging, legendary former Texas Rangers. As the book opens they’re running a cattle farm in the dusty little town of Lonesome Dove, Texas. While in their younger years they made a living from catching and hanging horse thieves, they now regularly cross the Mexican border to steal horses for themselves. Call is a stoic, a man of few words with a practically superhuman work ethic, but very little time for feelings or human connection. He’s such an imposing presence that everyone feels like he’s taller than he really is. Everyone, that is, except Gus, his partner of 30 years. Gus is an epicurean, a pleasure seeker who loves life and is usually too busy talking or drinking to work very hard, though he’s exceptionally capable when he does. He has a preposterously loud voice and is the only man who Call can’t intimidate. Together they form a yin-yang of sorts, two individuals who have found polar opposite ways of dealing with life, who despite their differences have formed a deep and lasting partnership.

One day, Call decides that he wants to take a herd of cattle from Texas up to Montana. Whether it’s for economic opportunity, or for adventure, or just from a sense of restlessness, not even he can say. Why does anybody do anything? Regardless, he's the captain, so they rustle up the old gang and a couple hundred cattle, and set off on the long and perilous journey.

So that's basically it: two old Texas rangers and their companions set out to drive a herd of cattle from Texas to Montana. Among the other colorful characters (with equally colorful names) are Pea-Eye and Deets, who used to ride in the same Rangers outfit, Newt, the young son of a deceased whore, Blue Duck, the ruthless Native-American outlaw they were never able to catch, Jake Spoon, who always preferred poker and prostitutes to responsibility, and last but not least young Lorena Wood, Lonesome Dove’s only prostitute, as distant as she is beautiful, who seldom speaks but whom half the town is in love with. She’s a complicated, subtle character who is well aware of the effect she has on men, but has long since given up placing any faith in them.

Along the way they encounter bandits, murderers, rapists, snakes, storms and one or two decent human beings. Each character makes decisions that show what kind of person they are, for better or for worse. Jake Spoon, for example, brings Lorena along on the drive against Call’s wishes, but later decides he would rather drink and gamble than look out for her. When she gets abducted and put through a horrifying ordeal, it’s not Jake, but Gus who steps in and does something about it.

On that note, I think this book has a lot to say about humanity, and about masculinity in particular. I see the three central male figures, Gus, Call and Jake, as having three completely different “styles” of masculinity, but there’s a clear hierarchy of whose style is best. (Jake’s is in last place, that’s all I’ll say.) I think the measure of a man is in the way one chooses to embrace both responsibility and love. There’s a balance to be struck between doing one’s duty, and sharing the experience with those around you. Even Call, the bravest of the brave, struggles to face his own humanity when it comes to the issue of who Newt’s real father is. It begs the question: you may win every fight, but when all is said and done, does anyone in this world love you?

At the beginning of the story, Gus and Call have a wooden sign advertising their ranch. At the bottom of the sign, beneath their names, Gus puts a latin motto that he got from a book, even though he doesn’t know what it means. It reads Uva uvam vivendo varia fit. I looked it up. It means: “A grape ripens by being around other grapes.”


Lonesome Dove has been called the quintessential western novel. It's ironic because we often think of the Wild West as this rosy, romantic time in American history full of larger-than-life characters. This book does the opposite, and somehow becomes truly romantic. Maybe it’s useful to have our own rose-colored cultural mythology, to some extent. But when you over-romanticize the past you definitely don’t learn as much. For one thing, there’s no such thing as larger-than-life characters, for life is larger than us all. All we have, then, is our sense of dignity and our capacity to love. This mature, nuanced philosophy, as well as McMurtry’s limpid and clear writing style, are why despite being over 900 pages long, I simply did not want this book to end. But of course it did, and like the grape on the vine, I’m a riper person for having read it.