Book Review: Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

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!

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12 thoughts on “Book Review: Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

  1. I’m so glad to read your review! I read this book many years ago (27 to be exact) and we gave our son the middle name Augustus because of the character in Lonesome Dove. If you have not seen the miniseries starring Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall, you are in for a treat; I hope you’ll write about that too (as an addendum to your book review, perhaps?). Lonesome Dove is the June book in my book club too. Thanks, as always, for your helpful and interesting reviews!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jeanne, Augustus is an awesome middle name! He was one of my favorite characters in the book, despite his shortcomings. 🙂 The mini series is next up on my husband’s and my playlist and I just might try my hand at film review after watching it. Thanks for the comment!

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  2. What a treat to be reminded of a book I read – and loved – so long ago! I had forgotten most of the plot, of course, but your review reminded me of that strong story line and great characters. Thank you so much for this delight today!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome, Martha, and thanks for your comment. This reading challenge has reminded me that there are plenty of good books written 20-40 years ago – not quite old enough to be a “classic” and recent enough to not feel very dated. I’m thinking about doing a version of Throwback Thursday where I review an older book every month or so. One big benefit would be that the hold time at the library should be very short!

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  3. I’ll admit that I also do not remember a lot of the plot twists, but the story and characters have remained with me for more than 2 decades . I liked the book so much that I also saw the movie, or I think it was mini-series on TV. Then I read several other Larry McMurtry books, including a recent one this year: The Last Kind Words Saloon. ( A quick read and dime store Western genre.) Lonesome Dove was the best though.
    My Pulitzer read this year was Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner, the 1972 winner, but a timeless book, well worth the time it took to read it. (It is a long book.) There is a terrific female character based on a real woman. I also learned a lot about mining in the US in the frontier and later days. I also loved Stegner’s book “Crossing to Safety.” A more recent Pulitzer winner -2016- was “The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen. I read it last year and it was excellent. There is some disturbing violence but it is not gratuitous. The book is a side of the Vietnam War and refugees that you never even imagined. The story is told with irony, humor and grim determination by a unique protagonist. Another long but thoroughly worth while book.
    Thanks, by the way, for your recommendation of Peace Like A River. I am now waiting to read another book by Leif Enger- what a unique and gifted storyteller!

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  4. Lonesome Dove is one of my favorite books. I’ve read it twice. It’s even better when you can imagine Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones as the main characters. However, I wouldn’t get it if you’re not prepared to read nearly 900 pages.

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    • It’s funny that you mentioned that because I did often imagine those two actors speaking the dialog as I was reading. Seems like inspired casting and I’m looking forward to watching the miniseries! And, yes, at 900+ pages, it’s a serious commitment!

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  5. Lonesome Dove definitely sounds worth reading. I do like western themes.

    I actually read two award-winning books this month: one a Pulitzer Prize winner (Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri) and one the winner of the Akutagawa Prize (Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata). Both are books I’d highly recommend, and both are sticking with me somewhat and rattling around my head after reading them.

    Interpreter of Maladies is a collection of short stories relating the Indian experience, each wrapped in hope or sadness or a bit of both. I found the stories thoughtful and touching. Some are likely to stay with me, at least in parts, some characters more than others, but I truly enjoyed the journey though every story. Jhumpa Lahiri is a wonderful storyteller; not everyone can craft such meaningful short stories.

    Convenience Store Woman is an unusual and enjoyable tale, one recommended to me by someone I admire, so I took a chance on it and don’t regret it. It’s a peek into Japanese culture, although from an quirky angle. Having held a selection of rather mundane jobs in my life and often feeling out of place (even if not so much as the main character), I easily wanted to follow the story to the end and see what happened. In short, it’s about a woman finding her place and purpose. I’m not sure how else to describe it, but I’d recommend it and it’s a short enough read that I think few people would regret it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You always recommend such interesting books! (and I mean “interesting” in a good way) I haven’t read a collection of short stories in a really long time so I might have to check out the first one.

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  6. Taking on Lonesome Dove seemed like a daunting task. My 1980s paperback version was 943 pages and the last time I could remember reading a book that long was when I went through a Michener phase over 20 years ago. I wasn’t sure how this was going to work out. Now, I can’t believe how quickly I read it! What a great tale told in a very straight forward way – no flowery prose – just written in a style that captured the essence of the period – or at least how I imagine it. I had a hard time putting it down at night and even now, the characters keep coming to mind at random times. McMurtry avoids the romanticism often associated with Westerns and provides an often harsh and disturbing tale of a cattle drive. But to me the irony is that now that I have finished it, I find myself thinking of the book fondly – more as a romantic tale of a bygone period. I imagine that is why the novel is a masterpiece. Despite the length, this was a story that I did not want to end. If only they could have done the cattle drive even farther…
    What I find interesting for myself is that of the dozen or so books I have read this year, my two favorites are this one and The Secret of Santa Vitoria, an even older novel. Maybe I’m just becoming an old timer?!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Remember, George, the word for us is “vintage.”

      I’ve been enjoying the older books, too, and I’m going to see what other ones I can dig up. So glad you put Lonesome Dove on our short list of options!

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