by Larry McMurtry
Simon & Schuster
1997, 912 pages
Buy it online
Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce
WESTERN HISTORICAL fiction has had a hell of a time being taken seriously as literature. It suffers for being rooted in the "dime novels" of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mass-produced yarns that emphasized romantic myths of the West over the rude realities of Manifest Destiny. The archetypes of those stories -- stoic heroes with barking six-guns, whores with hearts of gold, bandits with a fashion fetish for black -- were reinforced by early Hollywood, and it's the rare novelist since who has successfully offered a distinctive, much less memorable perspective on the Old West.
Which is what makes Larry McMurtry so interesting.
His best-selling 1985 epic Lonesome Dove won the Pulitzer Prize and spawned a superfluity of imitations. It was a sprawling, spirited tale about two former Texas Rangers -- the loquacious, whiskey-drinking Augustus McCrae and his terminally taciturn partner, Woodrow Call -- who drive a motley crew and a herd of beef cattle across the treacherous West in the 1870s. Had a lesser wordsmith penned that book, it might have been dismissed by critics. But Texas-born McMurtry had built much of his reputation on such antimythic stories of the West as Horseman, Pass By and The Last Picture Show. That groundwork lent him credibility when he finally sat down to glorify the tongue-tied cowpokes, unabashed prostitutes, and malevolent marauders who were once this region's best and brightest.
Lonesome Dove 's success led to a 1993 sequel, Streets of Laredo (disappointing, since McCrae's death in the original book left Call to carry this adventure alone), and two prequels: Dead Man's Walk (1995) and now Comanche Moon -- the last and arguably the second-strongest entry in McMurtry's Old West saga.
Again, Gus and Woodrow are riding with the Texas Rangers, only they're now middle-aged and more set in their complementary -- and pleasantly ornery -- ways. Moon covers a 20-year timespan around the Civil War, when white civilization was usurping even the West's strongest Native American cultures and turning resisters into renegades. Much of the story is spent on the sere plains, as the Rangers pursue three different but equally dangerous men: Buffalo Hump, a legendary Comanche warrior (introduced in Dead Man's Walk ) who seeks to stem the tide of white settlement; his murderous outcast of a son, Blue Duck; and Ahumado (the "Black Vaquero"), a Mexican warlord practiced in the creative arts of torture. When the Rangers' commander, a half-mad, Harvard-schooled captain named Inish Scull, loses his prized war-horse to a Comanche thief and sets off to reclaim him (winding up as Ahumado's latest and most challenging victim), McCrae and Call are thrust reluctantly into command of the Rangers -- forcing them to fight not only Indians, but a parsimonious Texas legislature.
McMurtry is adept at blending humor into his picaresque fables. He's a master of the wry aside. In Moon, for instance, he tells of a drunken Texas senator who, after collapsing in the muddy streets of Austin and having his hand severed off by a passing wagon, screamed so loud that most locals "assumed it could only mean an Indian attack. Men rushed for their guns and women for their hiding places." But much of the enjoyment in these books comes from their casts of eccentric characters. McMurtry manages to present those figures -- no matter how primitive or burnt-out or patently notorious they are -- through the prism of their own sophistication (or lack thereof), hardly flavored by the author's modern judgment of their behavior.
After three books, McCrae and Call have become old friends, but Comanche Moon fills still more gaps in their backstories and -- surprisingly -- gives depth even to the dour Call. We experience here Gus' loss of his longtime love, Clara Forsythe; learn more about the troubled relationship between Woodrow and his mistress, the harlot Maggie Tilton, by whom he bears his unacknowledged son Newt; and come to better understand the friendship between Newt and the ne'er-do-wellish Jake Spoon, who is so integral to the opening situation of Lonesome Dove.
In fact, Comanche Moon feels throughout like a transitionary work. That doesn't detract from its strengths of prose or plotting so much as it suggests that McMurtry's saga should be read in its entirety to be fully appreciated. The merest handful of other modern novelists -- A.B. Guthrie (The Big Sky ), Douglas C. Jones (This Savage Race ), Greg Matthews (Power in the Blood), and Ron Hansen (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford ) -- have produced stories of the American frontier experience that are as enthralling or authentic. Larry McMurtry can ride high in the saddle knowing he has confirmed that the best western historical fiction is just fine literature with spurs on.
J. KINGSTON PIERCE, a Seattle writer and editor, is a regular contributor to Historic Traveler magazine, Seattle magazine, and Seattle Weekly, as well as numerous other national and international magazines. He is also the author of several non-fiction books, including S an Francisco, You're History! (Sasquatch Books, 1995) and America's Historic Trails with Tom Bodett (KQED Books, 1997), the companion volume to the popular PBS-TV series of the same name.