I wish, please, to be buried with a copy of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. Or cremated, one.
First, let me tell you about my husband.
I used to get mad at my husband for saying that he really liked a book because there was a part in it in which the protagonist was riding a bike. (My husband likes bikes.) Or the setting was Connecticut. (He was born in Connecticut.) “Those are not reasons to like a book!” I’d say to him. “Those are reasons you like a book when you’re five! When you’re five, you like Ramona because her mother makes peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and you say, hey, my mother makes peanut butter and jelly sandwiches too! Therefore, I like this book! No! That’s not okay! One should appreciate a book for its language; its finesse with emotional subtleties; the depth and joy of characterization, not because you’re familiar with the soundtrack that the main character has elected to play while she’s driving overnight to Tallahassee.”
But here I am, hoist on my own petard. I love Lonesome Dove for all the wrong reasons.
A word about style, if I may.
It’s not that I believe that McMurty is the stylist of our generation—though he’s sufficient for us more or less discerning types. Stephen King’s stuff provides an obvious comparison. Many readers of Stephen King make much of his facility with the language. I haven’t read much King because I don’t care for horror due to I find plenty of horror all around me every day, especially since apparently half the people in my country like a racist blowhard for president. But we’re talking about language here. Even the book review published by the Paper of Record thinks enough of King’s skills that they assign him major important books for their book review: he reviewed Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch for them. That was a Big Book and everyone knew it was going to be a Big Book; why would they have given it to someone who, in their estimation, was a genre millionaire and nothing else? Explain that to me like I’m a first grader. (That’s a line from the movie Philadephia for which Tom Hanks won an Oscar for portraying a gay lawyer with Aids.)
In other words, while I haven’t read Stephen King, I have evidence that he can write just fine, much like Larry McMurtry. Straight ahead. Not too self-conscious; not a lot of flourish; just plain and transparent.
The fact is that neither Stephen King nor Larry McMurtry have a style that stuns. Their writing is confident and clear and they can make it do what they want it to do, but neither of them seem really to want to make it do more than create the atmosphere in which to lodge their story. It’s pretty clear: to them, the story’s the thing. As that’s true for a whole lot of readers as well, they’ve done just fine by themselves.
There are many readers, however, who put style above the price of rubies. They wish for language that hovers just so; that vibrates; that demands a reread or a sigh or a moment of stillness. Beauty is subjective of course: some readers want language that smells like gardenias; for others, clean and sharp does the trick. Full-blown is not better than spare. It just depends on what you like.
Certainly, I love a writer who can make magic with words. Also, I like to think that I’m an adequately discriminating consumer. I’ve read sorta widely and kinda deeply. I especially appreciate a writer for whom the language is like a rose-scented bubble bath or their own blood or the gold ring at the circus or manna or the first glimpse of their freshly born child. Or what have you.
But back to me. I have read many of the great stylists: Proust and Mann and Eliot and Canetti and James and Roth and the Russians and Woolf and Sebald and McCarthy and Saunders. As well as the writers who should be as famous but missed the publicity boat, such as Laxness and Chamoiseau and Farrell and Barker and Marai. I owe each of those authors a debt of gratitude for giving the small speck of Erica, this one person in the midst of the multitudes, a richer life. Thanks, ya’ll.
So why then, I wonder, does Lonesome Dove—a good novel, but not perhaps a great one– float my boat so?
Let us examine the reasons.
I will never sing lullabies to cattle, while in the distance, the mountains loom blue. Despite the fact that cowboying is dangerous, likely boring, probably fly-specked, often lonely, and certainly exhausting, and that it probably makes your body old before its time, I seem unable to rid myself of certain romantic magical thinking vis a vis it.
Now, I’m not generally naïve and I don’t suffer fools gladly, especially myownself. But there’s something about the prairie and the horse that calls to me, not that I’m not petrified of horses which I am because they’re so big. I’m enamored enough of what I realize is simply romance, that I wrote a novel around the Wild West. I wrote about blood-soaked clothing and rape and fire and riding astride and scalpings and torture. It fed my soul in some odd way. The cowboy’s life’s as far from my suburban middle-class middle-aged lady’s life as it’s possible to be, and yet I recognize in myself, the same sort of coarseness that I’d do well by, were I to live less cushily than I do at present. I think I could live with less. I have done it. I think maybe I could do it again.
This past summer, I walked 84 miles over farmland and it was the free-est I’ve ever felt. And part of that freedom was that my body, with which I have always had some serious theoretical differences vis a vis aesthetics, did me right. It got me where I was headed. It was strong. And the strength and freedom I felt is what I imagine it might feel like if for one moment, despite the dust and the soreness and the boring food and the bickering and the pure-T discomfort of the trail, some cowboy looked up and sniffed the air and felt pretty damn good for a second. That’s what she’d be feeling. Strong and free.
2. Bemused Pride in One’s Own Wittiness
I’ve skated along, so far, with a certain bullish jokiness, an ironic cheer, a surface jolliness pentimentoed over dark currents of cynicism. It’s not that I wish I weren’t cynical. I like it about myself that I know that the world is a cesspool. I’d hate to be a Pollyanna, pretending to myself that everything’s hunky dory while the Great Barrier Reef dies and wealth equals power.
On the other hand, I do appreciate the chin up and get on with it point of view. And I find life is easier if you can shrug a shoulder or maybe roll your eyes in the company of an equally exhausted fellow human.
There are a couple of sins—amongst the multitudes to which I am happy to own up—a couple of sins that were described with me in mind. On Passover, the service reminds us not to rush too quickly to the after-meal entertainment. On Yom Kippur, one of the sins for which we ask forgiveness is “inappropriate levity.”
Things could be worse. I could be Melania Trump. As it is, I get by with a little help from my snark. And I like anyone who can tell a joke with a straight face. I come by this appreciation honestly. My dad has certainly told his share of dad jokes, but often he uses that nice raised eye-brow head-shake, popularly known as “seriously?” as a response to the world’s offerings. My mom loves it when she tells a joke, which is cute, but mainly she’s an excellent laugher. She gets it. It’s part of her liberality of mind. I feel for the literal minded when they’re faced with sarcasm; this is not my mom’s problem. She gets sarcasm. It’s an excellent quality in anyone and lives could be saved, were it more common.
As per Larry McMurtry and Lonesome Dove: I feel at one with the writer and the novel in terms of sense of humor. In my opinion, he has that wonderful outlook for which I long ago coined the term, “cheerful survival.”
Witness Deets: cowboy; ex-slave; empathetic; noble; uniformed always in ridiculous, crazy-quilted pants because why not. Really, why not?
This right here (if I may) may indeed be the key to the reason Lonesome Dove is so universally beloved and why, perhaps, it won the Pulitzer Prize. It’s because McMurtry spares us neither gore nor heartbreak while simultaneously grabbing every single possibility to make us laugh. It’s a stunning combo, is what it is.
Life sucks, and then you die, sure, but between the abundance of cruelty and avarice and want, there are moments of generosity and hilarity. This seems to be McMurtry’s message, not that I think he’s really trying to send a message.
3. Story Time
These days, novels are often like poems. Short or long, they’re family stories about the great worlds inside every family and they’re condensed in terms of type of character; they’re contained by a minimalist aesthetic stylistically and a sort of mid-century modern idea of sleekness; they’re effete in terms of what the author wants of you in terms of emotion (one single intense heartbeat will do, thanks very much; more than that and things get sloppy). They require only one conflict and then turn it inside out. Which is fine.
But that’s not true with Lonesome Dove. It’s all there, there. Man against every damn thing the world has to throw at us, is what it’s about. McMurtry’s joy in the story he’s concocted is palpable; he had an awesome time with it and thus, so do you. The characters are wonderful, yeah, but so are the events. Every writer and reader knows that there’s nothing new under the sun; it’s how you take what’s old news (boy meets girl; the sore heart of the parentless child; betrayal; etc) and make it fresh and exhilarating and new. The plot’s not the thing, maybe, but without it, there ain’t much to attach the drywall to.
And Lonesome Dove is the grand embrace. It doesn’t leave anyone out. It’s totally democratic, that novel, which, as a Democrat, I wholeheartedly applaud. There’s not an effete moment in the whole tome.
4. It Helped
I have a kid who, like many other people, suffers from clinical Blueness. I’m glad she lives during our enlightened times as per mind illnesses. I can only speculate about this: what did people who suffer from Depression do before these days of drug therapy; what do those who don’t have access do now?
In centuries past, (as well as currently and all around the world) one expected life to be difficult. One’s primary job: survive. No one expected too many smiles from anyone who was older than six months, is what I imagine. Maybe everyone felt like crap—they were slaves, or cold, or hungry, or diseased, or in mourning because their wife just died in childbirth, or in mourning because their baby just died from malnutrition, or they were orphaned, or sold, or flooded out, or they had to sleep on the street, or they were scapegoated, or they were soldiers, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. So even if you did suffer from the Big D, you weren’t so different from your fellow citizens. Life, after all, is usually a veil of tears punctuated by moments of yuks (see cheerful survival, above).
But these days, in my particular set, there’s a high premium put on affability and good cheer. And sometimes, a brain doesn’t produce the chemicals that host those particular emotions. It happens. It sucks.
It happened to my kid. She’s a great kid. She’s smart and she can draw and she’s funny and she can bake and she loves dogs and she’s very opinionated as per politics and she’s all things wonderful. And her brain got sick. And it was quite sick for quite a while.
During those years of trying new medicines, and spirals down, and tears, and exhaustion (hers. mine.) and crippling anxiety and despair, I tried my best to be a good mother. I held her and I soothed her and I advised her and I listened to her and I found doctors and I consulted with other doctors and I soaked washcloths in cold water and laid them gently on her poor swollen eyes. I tried hard and so did she but sometimes I admit it: I was tapped out. Sometimes I felt like an empty gas pump.
And one night, as she sat next to my bed, crying her eyes out, asking me when it would end, asking me why it was worth it, I focused on the bookcase behind her and there, right there, was my hardback edition of Lonesome Dove, which I had bought with bookstore credit which my brother, who had died of Aids two decades earlier, had left me.
“Hand me that yellow book,” I said. “Hand me Lonesome Dove.”
She did and I started to read aloud. I read about Gus and about Call and about the sign on their ranch which stated that they didn’t rent pigs. And about the pigs eating snakes and about the cook and the dinner bell. And bless her heart, she smiled.
It was a beautiful sight.
So then, every night I read Lonesome Dove aloud as she sat huddled on the couch. And I watched her unhuddle herself and relax even if for just half an hour. I worried about the sad parts—there are so many—and whether she’d be able to handle them. Those sad parts though, they’re gentled down by Peach and Jake and Pea Eye and Dee and Clara and Deets, who become friends not unlike Ari Shapiro and Robert Siegel are my friends. (The NPR hosts.) (Not really my friends but then again, yes).
What I had discovered was something perfect for her and for me. She needed distraction; she needed to be away from herself; she needed to live in another place for a little while. She needed to be a little wild and a little free, even if just for a moment. And I soon realized what a little literary therapy might do for a person who can’t get out of their private hell. And so together, she and I, we saddled up together and we went for a ride.
She’s some better, my kid. And Lonesome Dove was only the first book we read: we read Jane Eyre and Sense & Sensibility and Cold Mountain and Little Dorrit and more, too. It’s a good thing I like the sound of my own voice.
But Lonesome Dove was the first. It was the right book at the right time. And as all readers know, that can make a powerful difference.
So: there they are. Four unsuitable reasons to love a book. Four important reasons. My reasons. Don’t forget now: when I goes, it goes with me.