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This month, as part of the 12 Months of Reading Goodness challenge, I read a Pulitzer Prize winner. The Pulitzer committee announces the annual prize winners each year in April. In fact, the 2019 winners were announced last week. I’m not familiar with the book that won this year’s Pulitzer for fiction, The Overstory by Richard Powers, and I’m not sure I’ll ever read it. But I am sure of this – I am so pleased that I read Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry, winner of the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. It is an amazing book.
At a very simplistic level, it’s the story of four former, ageing Texas Rangers who undergo a cattle drive from southern Texas to unsettled Montana in the latter half of the 1800s. But, of course, it’s much more than that. Larry McMurtry wanted it to be “a poor man’s Inferno, filled with violence, faithlessness and betrayal.” It certainly has all that. It’s full of flawed characters that have a hard time being decent to or honest with each other. The violence in the middle part of the book got to the point that I had to take a little break, especially when I liked some of the characters that were getting killed. And the harsh conditions they encountered on the way to Montana – swarms of locusts, blinding hail storms, extreme drought – were certainly hellish.
But it isn’t all grim. Terrific character development and flawless storytelling really pulled me into the story. The two main characters, Call and Gus, were larger than life. Call was the responsible one who prided himself on being inhumanly stoic, honorable and a hard worker. He was looked up to as a leader. And yet, he couldn’t bring himself to acknowledge the son he had with the local whore (the son was a prominent character, too, and embodied the compassion many of the other characters lacked). Gus was Call’s alter-ego, mostly lazy and pleasure-seeking but capable or tender when he needed to be. If you combined Call and Gus, you would get a whole, functional man. I think that’s why they put up with each for 30 years. It was like a strange marriage.
Larry McMurtry spins this long story out masterfully. The first 1/3 of the novel is a slow mosey through the characters’ back stories while they’re still in Lonesome Dove, TX. There are some lighthearted moments, and it’s mostly calm, lulling the reader into a mood that soon will change. It changes because the group heads off on the cattle drive, and soon face some great hardships. At this point, McMurtry also introduces some additional characters and begins expertly weaving their stories, which ultimately includes crossing paths with the cattle drive. By the last part of the book, the herd and most of the cowboys reach Montana, but Call finds it an empty accomplishment as there have been so many losses along the way.
This book is full of memorable characters, thought provoking imagery and unforgettable scenes. I found myself thinking about it often, trying to figure out, for example, why Call really undertook this journey or if the blue pigs had some kind of symbolic meaning. So many layers of complexity written in simple, authentic prose. Definitely an American classic worth reading.
If you have read Lonesome Dove, I’d love to hear your opinion. And if you read a Pulitzer Prize winner this month, please tell us all about it!