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Saturday, 17 September 2011

Lonesome Dove - a point of view

Published in 1985, Lonesome Dove has rightly gained many accolades and is a firm favorite for thousands of readers. At almost 850 pages, it’s a mammoth account of a cattle drive from Texas to Montana, affecting a cast of twenty or so characters. Its size alone deterred me from reading it until now. (I’ve read War and Peace, Gone with the Wind, and the Pillars of the Earth, among other lengthy novels, so I’m not averse to long books; it’s just that I didn’t think I’d be held by a book about a cattle drive for over 800 pages. I was wrong – mainly because of the characters.)

A quotation at the front, from TK Whipple, Study Out the Land, perhaps sums up McMurtry’s intention. “Our past still lives in us … what they dreamed, we live, and what they lived, we dream.” McMurtry seems intent on debunking the myth of the cowboy; here we find they’re ordinary, not particularly bright, with simple empty lives in a gritty unforgiving world devoid of much culture. Yet, despite this, some of his characters grow into mythic proportions. Going on, though belabored by heart-rending grief, is heroic, and that’s what many in this book do: go forward, go on.

McMurtry employs the omniscient point of view (POV), beloved of so-called literary writers. Not for them the struggle to maintain consistent POV, rather they’d opt for the rather lazy head-hopping that thrusts the reader into the minds of several characters in the same scene. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course – though modern agents and publishers tend to prefer consistent character POV.

The main drawback with the omniscient POV is that the reader doesn’t get into any particular character’s head long enough to form a bond. So when a main character dies – and McMurtry does tend to kill off people the reader’s getting to like – the effect isn’t as devastating as it might have been if the character had been more deeply lodged in the reader’s psyche. By its very nature, omniscient POV isn’t as intimate as individual POV. The author is not only playing God, he’s letting you know he is.

That apart, I enjoyed the book immensely and was moved in parts. I felt that the creation of Gus McCrae is a classic – though inevitably we learn most about him from his voice, not his intimate thoughts.

So, don’t be put off by this tome’s length. It’s well worth reading. There’s a prequel and a sequel too!


Chap O'Keefe said...

The McMurtry westerns all seem "mammoth" with the exception of Anything for Billy. I remember them as having several central characters, as you've noted, each with their own stories that could have been separate novels. Maybe the trick is to recognize that's the case and settle down with the "tome" for a long, or several, hauls!

Randy Johnson said...

This and all the sequels/prequels are among my favorite reads.

Nik said...

Thanks for the input, Chap and Randy. As you can see, I came late to Mr McMurtry. But I enjoyed the ride and will doubtless mount up with the guy again!