This was originally published on my blog, Dark Corners Blog, March 27, 2021.
I don’t think there are very many people who understand the depth of the debt the literary world owes to Larry McMurtry, who died at the age of 84 this last Thursday, March 25, 2021. I wrote on Facebook that there will be a lot of people only too happy to co-opt his body of work without understanding the context of his stories and adaptations for the sake of some ideal, without realizing that they will play directly into McMurtry’s hands, and that the irony would not have been lost on him. There will be a lot of people who will make claims about his body of work that he would quickly have refuted, and those will be the people who have never read past the first chapter of Lonesome Dove, if they actually read it all.
I read Streets of Laredo the summer I turned 14. It was my summer of my seventh grade year (I was at least a year too old for that grade). That first day, as I stepped through the doors of Texas History class with Streets of Laredo tucked under my arm, Mr. Blair greeted me with the Comanche sign of welcome. Later, he asked over the class:
“You like that book, huh?”
“Yeah,” I said, almost not paying attention.
“Have you read Lonesome Dove?” he asked.
“Not yet,” I said, not able to articulate that the Lonesome Dove miniseries was my babysitter throughout the long summer days, and had been since my parents dubiously thought we were old enough to watch it.
“Well, you can’t read Streets of Laredo yet! You gotta read Lonesome Dove!” he half shouted. His accent, I would come to learn, always got thicker if he raised his voice.
The girl in front of me turned around later that day in our reading class and said, “You’re not going to stop reading that just because he told you to.”
She didn’t ask me. It was a statement, a demand, and her tone was rather uncivilized. I narrowed my eyes at her and said, “No,” with defensive resolution. Her name is Jessica Mauldin, and she sat in front of me for every single one of our classes in seventh grade. We were best friends from that moment forward. I still consider her one of my greatest friends.
I did go on to read Lonesome Dove. I also read Dead Man’s Walk. I did not get to Comanche Moon. I was McMurtry-ed out by then. Lonesome Dove is 843 pages. Dead Man’s Walk is about 600 or so, and Streets of Laredo is over 500. Comanche Moon was a much more reasonable length, but I had moved onto other books that I was not old enough for, Gone With the Wind and Stephen King’s IT. I won an award that year called “1,000+? No problem!”, though I read IT over the summer instead of in class, like some other smug people tried to do who thought they could outdo me. I read IT four times the summer of eighth grade. Long story short–as it were–don’t start nothin’, won’t be nothin’.
I didn’t read other westerns, and I rarely finished what I did pick up. To this day, unless it takes place in space, it’s a western I likely won’t read or watch (except News Of the World, review coming soon). I didn’t like Louis L’amour. I didn’t really like Spaghetti Westerns. I wasn’t a huge fan of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, and for much of my childhood, I couldn’t place why (I did really like Tombstone and The Alamo, though, up until a few years ago).
Wasn’t LD and SoL set in the Wild West? What made those so much better than L’amour (other than in every possible respect)? Why did Walker Texas Ranger rub me the wrong way? If it came down to it, I was more willing to re-read the Orphan Train saga than I was to pick up a dime store Western, but I wasn’t able to tell you why until I got to my college senior seminar on the literature of Troy, where we discussed at length the nature of the epic and why McMurtry was important to the idea of the Epic Western–or rather, why he was important to the death of the Epic Western.
Spoiler-ish! What’s the statute of limitations on 30 year old books and movies?
The Anti Epic
What sets Larry McMurtry apart from other western writers, and what ultimately makes his works more palatable to the modern reader, is the deconstruction of traditional western stereotypes. His characters were not villains being passed off as heroes (lookin’ at YOU Wyatt Earp!); McMurtry’s characters were ordinary men and women turned into legends with reputations that they repeatedly did and did not live up to.
Augustus McCrae was a womanzing drunk and ruined his one shot at happiness. Woodrow F. Call did the same thing; he just wasn’t a drunk womanizer. Both of them paid heavily for their mistakes: Gus never got to know his daughter, never got to have his children with Clara Forsythe (later Mrs. Allen), and he pushed Lorena Wood (later Mrs. Parker) away all the time. Call wasted his relationship with a son he never owned up to out of his own pride and shame, and Newt Dobbs died under a saddle horn without Call ever giving him his rightful name.
At the same time, these two “heroes” were surrounded by ordinary people doing extraordinary things every day of their lives. In Dead Man’s Walk there were Bigfoot Wallace, Shadrach, Matilda, and Captain Salazar. In Lonesome Dove, Deets, Pea Eye Parker , Newt Dobbs, Clara Allen, and later in Streets of Laredo, Maria Sanchez (formerly Mrs. Garza), Lorena Parker (formerly Lorena Wood), Famous Shoes, and Ned Brookshire. Ordinary people played such a huge role in McMurtry’s stories, and though Gus and Call were always at the center of the story, their hearts were always with their people.
The glorious backdrop against which his stories were set held rolling Montana hills, blue skies, Texas sun, and the Staked Plains. All of it beautiful; all of it deadly. No one was safe. George R. R. Martin had nothing on Larry McMurtry for killing off beloved characters, either by their own folly, or at the hands of evil, or more inexplicably, victims of the Frontier itself. I learned how to deal with death by watching strong men and women face it on the fringes of the known world. Tragedy was not to be triumphed over, and there was no prize at the end; there was no mercy, not even to the good and the just. Loss was a fact of life and the men and women of McMurtry’s novels did the only things they could do in the face of that reality: they picked themselves up, dusted themselves off, and kept on going. Even the successful arrival of the herd to Montana took such a heavy toll on Call and his crew that it was clear by the end of the novel that it was not worth it and none of it made sense.
“Morty, Does Evil Exist, and Can It Be Measured?”
The answer is yes in the world of Larry McMurtry’s novels, but you don’t have to be a genius to see it.
The magic of the novels were the powerful ways in which good and evil worked through people. McMurtry’s villains were far from upstaged by the heroes who were forced to face them. Buffalo Hump, his son Blue Duck, the man-burner Mox Mox, and the teen killer and man-hunter, Joey Garza. Like the Frontier’s cruelty, these villains were carved from some senseless evil, though later it became clear that Buffalo Hump was not a villain, but rather the vengeful hand of the West, to whom even Woodrow Call would become indebted. Through Buffalo Hump, Gus and Call came to realize that some parts of the west could never, should never, be won, and that eventually they would come to reap what they had sewn when they pushed the Indigenous people of the Frontier to war. Buffalo Hump was McMurtry’s nod to anti-colonialism, and his characters would repeatedly be reminded of the consequences of colonization.
McMurtry made it clear in some of John Wesley Hardin’s monologues that the time and place the law was chosen to be exercised largely depended on who was causing the most trouble and to whom, highlighting the quixotic nature of life on the Frontier and the general apathy we attributed to the United States government at a time when there was no unified law enforcement. Unified law enforcement was generally whatever the Union Army said it was, prompting local law enforcement to write their own laws and codes, which often stood at odds with the demands of the Army. The idea of “Outlaw Country” was born out of rebellion against the eminent domain of the Union Army, and gave rise to the Robin Hood-like heroes of the Old West. It is Hardin, and the other villains of the Lonesome Dove saga, that remind us that good and bad were fluid, a matter of perspective, on the frontier. It was out of these unclear boundaries that legendary heroes and villains were born.
Not to mention we got this gem from Tommy Lee Jones as Woodrow F Call.
Blue Duck, Mox Mox, and Joey were McMurtry’s less pardonable villains. Their motives were selfish and hateful. Their psychology was a lot less complex. Unlike Buffalo Hump, they were not one with the land upon which they were willing to die. Unlike John Wesley Hardin, they had not removed themselves from the equations of good and evil. They represented not the harsh but understandable Frontier, but rather the lawlessness of a country who lived by its own code. In the absence of traditional law, the good lived as well as it could, and the evil lived for far longer than it should have.
It’s part of Gus and Call’s appeal as men of the “law”, retired Texas Rangers (and later, bounty hunter), but it is also their tragedy. Their fight against the traditional villains rarely ended in triumph and justice was never served. The refreshing nature of Lonesome Dove and Streets of Laredo is that nothing Gus and Call did ultimately mattered. They did the absolute best that they could, and that was going to have to be enough.
It was the legend that made them great men, not their real deeds. Call was credited with bringing an end to Blue Duck, Mox Mox, and Joey Garza, but on those scores, he didn’t do “anything of the danged kind.” Without giving away too much, it is enough to say that those villains put an end to themselves, having built prisons out of the world they made in the lawless west.
The Realest Triumph Of Larry McMurtry
What is perhaps the most impressive triumph of McMurtry’s works was not the deconstruction of racist stereotypes (like wow, not even as close as McMurtry hoped to come–that’s a whole different blog post), but rather the literary exploration of the bond between two partners–or pards. The west is rife with legendary partners, Poncho and Lefty, Willie and Waylan, and I would postulate Holmes and Watson. It was exemplified in McMurtry’s work among his more minor characters, like Longbill Coleman and Johnny Carthage, July Johnson and Rosco Brown, even Pea Eye Parker and Famous Shoes. However, none of these held the unspoken sense of the inseparable, tragic, lifelong commitment of two men to each other the way it was between Call and Gus. Two best friends dedicated to each other in a purely platonic relationship is often touched upon but rarely as deeply accentuated on the big screen as Gus and Call. This is no superficial, shallow bro duo, but a relationship between two men that did actually end both men’s future chances of relationships with the women they loved. Far from homosexual in depiction, (though McMurtry did write the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain), it was the commitment to each other that led Gus to follow Call to Montana, and for Call to take Gus back to Texas no sooner had they arrived. There was no level of sacrifice too great for the two of them to make for each other. They sacrificed their futures, their happiness, their lives for each other.
The acceptance of male companionship that characterizes the pard relationship is at its core a homoerotic relationship. More than brothers, more than friends, the pard is something a male character cannot do without and is also difficult for female characters to understand. He is an integral part of the Western in literature, but it was McMurtry that really stopped romanticizing it and depicted it as the tragic, gritty, doomed relationship it was, further cementing his works indelibly as the ultimate in Western deconstruction. His novels illustrated the powerful faith a man could place in someone other than himself and find it reciprocated, not unlike the relationship a man might have with God. If God makes men in his own image, then it makes sense that salvation may not be found in God himself, but in the “pards” God sent to watch over them. This is vitally important in the war-torn, hostile United States during a portion of history that made itself famous for begging the question of whether God existed at all, and if he did, why had he forsaken the Frontier.
Where are all the women?
McMurtry’s women were some of his most wonderful characters. This is so much more progressive than other Western writers. Rather than focus on the cowboy’s pursuit of his girl, McMurtry’s female characters stand on their own, facing struggles beside their male counterparts, fighting and dying beside them. They get raped, they get shot at (and they shoot back!), they are sex workers, and they aren’t ashamed or beaten down. They grow, they heal, and they help each other–or try to. Some people don’t want to be helped. Some of the best female characters in western literature are in Dead Man’s Walk.
Women are sources of power in McMurtry’s novels. They bear children and offer healing and protection. They are also sources of sexual power, which McMurtry portrays as threatening to men of lesser value. The characters of Jake Spoon and Joey Garza are threatened by this power, and show this insecurity by the physical abuse the visit upon the women in their lives. Jake Spoon is abusive to both Maggie Dobbs (Comanche Moon) and Lorena Wood (Lonesome Dove), and Joey Garza held deep-seated resentment for his mother’s remarrying, since that resulted in him being sold to the Apaches. In his mind, his mother was tainted, a whore. He maintained a very unhealthy association of women, sex, and his mother into his troubled (understatement) young adulthood, where there were thinly-veiled hints of asexuality, if not homosexuality, in his character.
Maria Garza/Sanchez’s weakness is not men. On the contrary, she has zero problems threatening to cut off a pair of cajones with a machete in a cornfield. She is definitely unhappy and alone, and unwilling to be so. She’s not looking to be saved; she’s just trying to stop being abused. By the time the man she truly loves comes along–played by George Carlin–she’s already too tired to try again.
Maggie and Lorena, both of whom start their stories as sex workers, catch the brunt of Jake Spoon’s repeated failings as a man. As a lover he is more than adequate, but as a man, he can’t care for himself at all. Brooding, moody, adventurous, handsome, he's everything a woman could want. Of course, Jake’s love is transactional. When women are not nurturing him, that job falls to Gus and Call, who can’t help but love him. He’s a charming narcissist, something that McMurtry is careful to assert that no woman is willing to suffer twice. Jake’s end befitted his treatment of everyone around him.
McMurtry is conscious of the fear men have of powerful women, particularly of their sexual power. It is not an accident that three out of the five or six powerful women in McMurtry’s novels are sex workers. The women of McMurtry’s Frontier offer salvation more than ruin, though women are not immune to ruin. Ruin and salvation at the hands of women is used as a literary device without ever sacrificing the power of his women; with each and every ounce of abuse he dishes out to his women, there is a both a woman and man of equal measure waiting to offer her their love and help.
In the rich, unrelenting world McMurtry created for his characters, there was much truth in the words of Davy Crocket in John Wayne’s The Alamo,
“There’s right and there’s wrong; you gotta do one or the other. You do the one and you’re living. You do the other and you may be walkin’ around, but yer dead as a beaver hat.”
The truly evil brought about their own ruin in the end, but then again, so did those who believed to be doing only good.
McMurtry’s enduring legacy lies not in providing us with timeless legends and extraordinary heroes, but by showing us the harsh realities of the Frontier, the elegiac longing for a Wild West that lasted only about half a century, and left almost as soon as it appeared, sweeping up an entire generation of men and women and depositing them in the Nineteenth Century, unsure of their place in the world and cut off from a “simpler past” that wasn’t simple at all. The myth of the Wild West was constantly proven wrong. The romance of the long ride was never part of the story. It was dirty. It was dangerous. Friends died. Children died. Good people died. Evil people wrecked their hell without consequence. Manifest Destiny was the celebration of the tenacity of the American people, but McMurtry paints it as the hollowest of victories, asking us what the price we were willing to pay for expansion truly was, and was it worth it.
McMurtry was never fond of the praise he received for his contributions to literature. He wasn’t sure he was living up to the status he was attributed to. Like Call, he wondered how the world would remember him, as the man he was, or as the legend he was turning into. For me, he might have been the most inspiring creator of our time.
He was a man of vision you say? Yeah. Helluva vision.
About the Creator
Austin, TX | GrimDark, Fantasy, Horror, Western, and nonfiction | Amazon affiliate and Vocal Ambassador | Tips and hearts appreciated! | Want to see more from me? Consider dropping me a pledge! | RIP Jason David Frank!