Larry McMurtry’s 1985 western is beloved by many readers, as we were reminded in the many stories written about his recent death. It had been on my radar to read for many years, and prior to McMurtry’s death, Dorian’s praise for the book put in on my library holds list. And a week’s staycation gave me time to read it. At more than 800 pages, it requires some time, but it also reads pretty quickly, once it gets going.
The novel follows a pair of former Texas rangers, Gus and Coll, as they lead a team of cowboys on a journey to take a massive herd of cattle north from Texas to Montana, where, they’ve been told by a fellow former ranger, they will find a beautiful, untouched country to make a fortune as ranchers. It’s a long journey, fraught with physical peril, but the personal drama is perhaps even more gripping and painful.
It’s tempting to read this as a tribute to the hardy souls who “settled” the American West, but I think McMurtry is up to something far more interesting and ambiguous. For one thing, there is the constant presence of Indians. I had a lot of misgivings about this, particularly because McMurtry does not give any of the Indian characters an inner life, and the only one that gets a name is among the most brutal characters in the book. But, particularly toward the end of the book, the Indian presence is a constant reminder that these lands were already settled, and the white presence there could be seen as both foolhardy and destructive. One group of Indians we meet is devastated by poverty, and there are numerous mentions of the declining numbers of buffalo.
That is, perhaps, me reading into the text what I want to see, but a lot of the story points in the direction of the settling of these supposedly untouched lands being a fool’s quest. Lots of characters don’t want to go, and those who die along the way often have random and meaningless ends. Plus, there’s a lot of talk about whether and why they should keep going — for some, it’s almost a compulsion, and not really a healthy one.
That’s not to say that there isn’t heroism, but the heroism is not about settling land, it’s about people taking care of each other. Maybe that means making a daring rescue, or keeping a friend from falling off his horse when he goes to sleep, or giving some young cowboys some extra cash on their first trip to down. A lot of what I liked about this book was in the ways characters looked out for each other.
And, ultimately, it is the characters the make this book. The novel has a large cast, and although I couldn’t consistently keep all the minor characters straight, that’s only because there were so many of them to remember. Each person is individualized, and most are given inner lives and moments to shine. Given the setting, I was impressed at the variety among the small number of women characters. There are some wonderful comic moments that exist side by side with moments of great agony. The full gamut of feeling. All of which make this a great read.