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Monday, 13 July 2015

Dead Man's Walk by Larry McMurtry Book review

I've have decided to read the entire Lonesome Dove saga in chronological order which means I kick off with Dead Man's Walk which was actually the third book published following Lonesome Dove (chronologically the third book) and Streets of Laredo (a direct sequel to Lonesome Dove and chronologically the fourth and final book in the series) . I'd previously read the Pulitzer Prize winning, Lonesome Dove but the rest of the series were new to me, though I had seen all the TV movies based on the book. And to be honest now that I've read Dead Man's Walk I can say that the TV mini-series was pretty damn faithful with only a few cosmetic changes.

To clear things up the order of publication for the series:
Lonesome Dove  (1985)
Streets of Laredo  (1993)
Dead Man's Walk  (1995)
Comanche Moon  (1997)

Though in chronological order the series goes:
Dead Man' walk
Comanche Moon
Lonesome Dove
Streets of Laredo

Dead Man's Walk then gives us the very early years of Gus McCrea and Woodrow Call and depicts how the boys first became friends and of how they joined the Texas Rangers. The book starts with Gus and Woodrow signed on as rangers with a road scouting expedition led by the inept  Major Chevallier. During the expedition they are repeatedly attacked by Indians led by a deformed Comanche called Buffalo Hump.

 During this early section of the book we get to know the important characters, especially Gus and Woodrow - their personalities are sketched out over a number of brilliantly written set pieces, usually involving the war chief, Buffalo Hump. Gus is the talkative, whore-loving, easy to get along with type, which his best friend, Woodrow is solid, dependable, serious minded and not all together likable. When Gus visits a whore he is in love with her and treats her with genuine affection, while when Woodrow visits he gets his business done and then gets out of there without a wasted word. The two men are polar opposites but they live and breath  as real people on the page and the chemistry between them is excellent.

There are several other secondary characters who are equally well drawn - Matty, known as the Great Western, is the whore who throws snapping turtles at the men and generally allows them a poke till pay day, Bigfoot Wallace is a mountain man with a fine line in storytelling, Shadrach is another mountain man, an aged character in the final years of his life. And then we have Long Bill Coleman and Johnny Carthage, two everyman types who provide one or two moments of comic relief as well as several truly poignant scenes.

Gus and Woodrow make it back from the first expedition, regarding it a failure but no sooner are they in Austin than they sign up for an expedition to capture and annex Santa Fe. This expedition is led by the pirate and soldier of fortune, Celeb Cobb but unfortunately he proves to be just as useless a leader as Major Chevallier. Before they leave Austin though Gus has finds to meet and fall madly in love with a Clara Forsythe, a young lady who works in her father's general store.
Woodrow and Gus from the TV mini series based on Dead Man's Walk

"Why I believe I have smitten Mr. McCrae," Clara said with a laugh. "I doubt I could smite you though, Mr. Call- not unless I had a club."

Indeed Cal has to remind Gus that he's signed up for the expedition when he announces that he is remaining behind and plans to marry Clara Forsythe.

"Marry her - you ain't got a cent,"  Call said. "Anyway, why would she have you? You ain't known her ten minutes."

"Ten minutes is enough," Gus said. "I want to marry her and I aim to."

It is only the fact that leaving the expedition would be desertion and that he would be shot for the crime, that persuades Gus to go on with the expedition though he vows he will return and marry the young woman.

The storyline truly is epic and the doomed Santa Fe expedition makes for an incredible feat of storytelling in which the author keeps the reader glued to page after page of incredible prose. The period and people are brought vividly to life, and the author doesn't shy away from the cruelty of the times.

There is one scene that had me cringing as I tuned the pages, a scene in which Gus, Woodrow and Bigfoot Wallace savagely stab a buffalo they have already shot a couple of dozen times. The beast just won't die - this scene was altered significantly for the TV version. Strange that I should find this scene so distasteful when there are gruesome scalpings, tortures and shootings which I lapped up. Still the author is right in bringing the scene to such vivid, horrific life and he seems to be using the overkill of this single buffalo to highlight the wanton destruction of the species by the whites during the westward expansion. Much is made of the fact that the white's only seem interested in the liver and testicles of the Buffalo,considering them a luxury but will allow the rest of the beast to go to waste, while when the Indians kill one of the noble creatures nothing is wasted. The buffalo is given almost mythic status within the story and serves as a symbol of a way of life fast vanishing

In all 200 people left on the expedition but gradually they were whittled down until only a handful survive - one incredible scene sees the adventurers having to climb down a cliff to avoid a prairie fire started by the Comanches, but this is only one set piece amongst a string of ever more audacious events.

The author certainly knows how to carry a story and I, as a western writer, found myself amazed at how real the story became as I read. If I could only achieve something half as good in my own writing.

Overall I would say this book is a worthy start to an incredible saga - the author seeks to demythologise the West and show it as it must have really been, but at the same time in Gus and Woodrow he has created two characters who firmly belong in the myth of the western. Poetic, brutal, beautiful and above all compelling - I picked up the book every chance I got and thought nothing of sitting there reading for a couple of hours at a time.

Right's straight into Comanche Moon


Davieboy said...

Thanks, nice review. Might be time to out the audiobooks once again, or re-watch the DVDs and marvel at Robert Duvall's skills once more.

Oscar said...

Nice review. I think you'll enjoy Commanche Moon, too. McMurtry is one of the best when it comes to western fiction in my opinion.