In 1981, Bruce Springsteen was in talks with Paul Schrader to star in a musical that would, six years later, become Light of Day, and starred Michael J. Fox in one of his first non-comedic roles. The film was originally titled Born in the U.S.A., which Springsteen would use to title a song he’d been working on about a Vietnam veteran. After going through several home demo permutations, it would eventually be the center-point for his 1984 multi-platinum album of the same name, and helped define an entire era. The problem was, it was used to represent a milquetoast and nostalgic sentimentality that flew in the face of the explicit meaning of the song. Outside of the seemingly jingoistic title, and anthemic melody, the song is actually a lament for the working class and beleaguered Vietnam veteran disenchanted by the ambivalent country he’s returned home to.
Ten years prior to Springsteen and Shrader discussing a planned movie collaboration, Larry McMurtry and Peter Bogdanovich were contemplating re-teaming after the success of 1971’s The Last Picture Show. They planned on getting John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, and Henry Fonda to star in it, and it was going to be a movie about how the West – the push to settle the American frontier and subdue the American Indian – ended. All three turned the movie down, and it’s not hard to see why. John Wayne wasn’t far removed from winning his first (and only) Oscar for 1968’s True Grit, but Stewart and Fonda found demand for their work had decreased. All three stars were aging, and his movie – originally titled Streets of Laredo – was built on that very idea. It’s hard to acknowledge the end, especially for someone who has spent most of their life on top. The story lay fallow for over a decade before McMurtry bought the rights back and turned it into this book.
The story of how Lonesome Dove came to be is almost as popular as the novel itself, and there’s a great oral history for anyone with the time or inclination to read it.
To be perfectly honest, I’ve been a little obsessed with this book. I’ve listened to podcasts about it. I’ve watched videos on Youtube about it. I’ve read articles on it. Now I’m sitting down to write a review about it, and I have a kitten chewing on my knee and a 4 year-old daughter watching Zootopia and narrating the drawing she is making of a girl peeing in a toilet. Needless to say, I’m drawing a blank on saying anything that hasn’t been said by people a lot more intelligent and insightful than I.
My father grew up in the ’50s, and maintained a love for western movies throughout his life. I grew up with John Wayne movies playing on the family TV and Louis L’Amour taking up an entire shelf in my parents meager library. So I get the appeal of Lonesome Dove as the quintessential romanticization of Western fiction. There’s a real nostalgia here, and it reads like the perfect encapsulation of what Hollywood spent decades selling us about American westward expansion.
But that’s not what this book is, really. This isn’t some Hollywood fantasy of the West. It may be romantic, in it’s way, but it’s also bleak. This book is about failure, and death, and broken dreams. It’s about men born to wander with nowhere left to roam. It’s about a society that marginalizes black people, and women, and immigrants, and Native Americans. It’s about a world that’s often inhospitable and always unforgiving. It is, ultimately, about what the people who “tamed the West” are left with after they’ve essentially finished the job.
That’s where Born in the U.S.A. comes in. This book wasn’t intended to be this perfect romanticized encapsulation of the Western genre. The response the novel got, McMurtry says in his introduction, baffled him. Just as the response Born in the U.S.A. Springsteen got didn’t always sit well with him. McMurtry would go on to write Streets of Laredo, in part, to hammer home the themes he brought forward in Lonesome Dove, to make more explicit his intent.
Woodrow Call and Augustus McRae are two “old” Texas Rangers (maybe in their 40s?) who spent their life subduing the land so that it can be settled by whites. Now, with most American Indians gone or quiet, most of their time is spent raiding into Mexico to capture horses (or return horses that have been, in turn, stolen the other way). The land is dirt, the sky is endless, and the heat is a constant companion. Lonesome Dove is a “one whore town”, and everyone loves the woman earned that notoriety: Lorena Wood. An old companion of Call and Gus, Jake Spoon, returns to Lonesome Dove after killing a man in Arkansas. He mentions, mostly in passing, how beautiful and unsullied Montana Territory is. That’s all Call needs to inspire the entire plot of the novel. Led by Call, everyone mounts up to be the first cattle drive into Montana.
And that is, essentially, what the book is. It’s also, unsurprisingly considering the 900 page length of the book, not even close a full encapsulation of the novel.
I’ve long wrestled with the idea of the “Great American Novel”. I read Moby Dick years ago because I had always heard it was the best American novel ever written. I ended up largely agreeing with that particular estimation. I’ve tried reading Hemingway and Faulkner for the same reason – and didn’t find as much success. I’ve read Steinbeck a little – but I loved Of Mice and Men long before I had any conception of the “Great American Novel” being a thing to experience. Having read Lonesome Dove, maybe I can start to wrap my head around the concept. I don’t think it’s the most beautiful book ever written. Hell, McCarthy’s Blood Meridian might be more beautiful – in a sorrowful and horrific kind of way. But I didn’t even get through the book because I didn’t find it particularly captivating. This, however, was hard to walk away from.
I finished the book over a week ago, and am wrestling what to even say about it, but I haven’t stopped feeling the book. I carry it with me. It weighs on me. My mom’s family is from Texas. My dad grew up loving Westerns and passed on the nostalgia for them to me, even if I don’t particularly enjoy John Wayne movies. There’s something about this book that I unknowingly needed. Something that moved me, and left it’s mark.