You know the part in Talledega Nights when Ricky Bobby mentions that Highlander won an Oscar, Jean Gerard asks him what for, and Ricky Bobby says: "Best Movie Ever Made!"?
Well, that's how I feel about Lonesome Dove. In my mind it won the Pulitzer Prize for Best Book Ever Written. They can quit giving out the award. No book will ever be better.
Now, when I have sung the praises of this book in the past, people have been skeptical. They hear its about a cattle drive and they think: oh a western. Then they think of all the westerns, both movies and books, they've ever seen--cowboys, cows, cavalrymen, criminals and Indians--and they lose interest. Also most people immediately think of the tv miniseries which starred Tommy Lee Jones (Woodrow) and Robert Duvall (Gus), and which was just a western. Westerns, though they are probably the most American of all literary traditions, are considered to be low-brow.
Lonesome Dove is a western, but it's so so much more.
Plot-wise, Lonesome Dove is deceptively simple. Retired Texas Rangers Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae decide to run a herd of cattle from Texas to Montana. It's the late 1870s, and no one has ever taken a herd so far north. With a motley assortment of cattle hands, horses, pigs, and one woman, they set off. A thousand pages later, they reach Montana. (That's not a spoiler; it's the details that count.)
Style-wise, Lonesome Dove is also deceptively simple. McMurtry is found of shifting points-of-view, something which every writing teacher in the world will tell you is a giant no-no. He doesn't favour elaborate descriptions. He lays out horrific events in simple prose. There's a certain Icelandic saga leanness to Lonesome Dove, the prose isn't stripped down as much as it is matter-of-fact. He lets characterization be revealed through the thoughts of his characters, and their actions. Never does he, the author, interject himself into the story. He just describes what is going on and leaves the rest up to the reader.
Because of all this simplicity it's easy to think that Lonesome Dove *is* actually just a book about a cattle drive. It first appears to a be celebration of cowboy culture, an "American Arthuriad."
McMurtry himself has been quoted as saying that Lonesome Dove is an anti-western. It is about the destruction of the American West, not a celebration of it. It's about how evil grows out of weakness--weakness of character, weakness of intent, weakness of will. It's about how we destroy those things and people we love the most. And it is about how men and women, at some deep fundamental level, don't understand each other. It's about death. It's a tragedy.
I love the American West, and I love the Western, but I'm under no illusions about it as either a literary genre, a movie genre, an ideology, or geography. The American West is all that great is about this country and all that is bad. And Lonesome Dove encapsulates why.
I'm probably making Lonesome Dove sound rather ponderous, but that's a disservice to the book. It's wildly entertaining, too, and extremely fast-paced. The characters are wonderful. And it ends with the most devastating last sentence I've ever read.