Archives for July 2013

Lonesome Dove, part 6. Jake Spoon: Well, I Guess I’ve Been in Love Before

HI 94 / LO 59, UV index 7

Well, I Guess I’ve Been in Love Before, Once or Twice and on the Floor: Jake Spoon

I love the Paul Simon song, “Late in the Evening,” from which that line comes. Jake’s the kind of fellow who’s good with lines. Heck, I think he slept with every woman in the book. He can’t love any woman more than that.

Gus says of Jake, “he liked Jake, but felt him to be too leaky a vessel to hold so much hope.”

That’s what Jake is, a leaky vessel. Newt “practically worshiped” Jake. All the hands like him. Lorie put so much hope in him that she left Lonesome Dove because she believed he would take her to San Francisco.

When we meet Jake, he’s already running from the law for shooting July’s brother, a dentist. His proud days of rangering with Gus and Call are in the past. He’s let himself drift. He drifted into Lonesome Dove. He drifted into the Dry Bean saloon and Lorena’s arms. He drifted onto the cattle drive, then he drifted into Austin to gamble, and then he drifted into the company of the Suggs brothers, a bunch of murdering horsethieves.

“It’s his dern laziness,” Call said. “Jake just kind of drifts. Any wind can blow him.”

Gus is wise enough to know that he and Jake are cut from the same cloth. He’s only a few shades removed from ending up like his old compañero. After all, Gus likes whiskey and women, just like Jake. Gus likes a game of cards, just like Jake. Gus doesn’t particularly like to work, just like Jake. The difference? Gus has spent his entire career with Captain Call. Jake left, then came back, then left again. The company a man keeps makes a difference.

Of course, you can’t overlook the fact that the whole reason Call goes to Montana is because Jake had been there and told him it was a cattleman’s paradise. Call risks his own life, the lives of several hired hands, dozens of horses and 3,000 head of cattle based on the word of a gambler. A gambler who deserts them.

When they finally catch up with him, Jake appeals to all of them — Deets, Call, Gus, Pea Eye, Newt — trying to convince them that he didn’t do anything, that he planned to leave the Suggs brothers, that he just said hello to a girl and the rest was just self-defense, that he’s no killer. But then, Jake damns himself.

“Jake, you might like to know that I got Lorie back,” [Gus] said.

“Who?” Jake asked.

And that’s when you’re ready to hang Jake yourself, after all that Lorie suffered at the hands of Blue Duck and his gang.

We’ve all known men like Jake, charming fellows, the kind that both men and women want to be near. The kind with no self-awareness, no conscience. Gus predicted Jake would be hanged when he left the Rangers; he just didn’t expect he’d have to do it himself.

“There was no more likeable man in the west, and no better rider either; but riding wasn’t everything and neither was likeableness. Something in Jake didn’t quite stick. Something wasn’t quite consistent.”

Lonesome Dove, part 5. Newt & Maggie

HI 82 / LO 51, UV Index 7

My Father’s Gun: Newt Dobbs

Yes, this Elton John song is a departure from the “love” theme, except that the song is about the love of a father for a son. In the end, Newt gets his grandfather’s pocket watch, his father’s horse, his father’s gun, and his father’s cattle ranch. Everything but his father’s name.

We should’ve known Newt would one day become the boss. Deets predicted it: “Oh, my, they done put a gun on you, ain’t they,” Deets said with a big grin. “I guess next thing you’ll be the boss of us all.”

If you didn’t already know that Newt was Call’s son, Clara clears it up: “They walk alike, they stand alike, and they look alike.”

Like his father, Newt’s a horseman. That’s why everyone is always giving Newt a horse. He inspires the kind of love that motivates people to give him the most valuable thing they own, which they know will be well cared for. Jake gives him his pacer. Clara gives him the sorrel with the star. And finally, Call gives him the Hell Bitch. No wonder he proves himself worthy of inheriting the Montana cattle ranch. Although he didn’t discover he talent for breaking horses he’s out from under Call’s shadow.

If only Call could have told Newt what he privately tells the readers: “It pleased him to see the quiet way the boy worked. He had never been one for talk when there was work to be done — it was his big point of difference with Gus, who could do nothing without talking. He was glad the boy was inclined to his way.”

In the preface to the novel, McMurtry acknowledges what I’d guessed: “But, if one cuts more deeply, the lonesome dove is Newt.” Heck, Clara practically says it: “He had been a sweet boy with lonesome eyes, polite.” And here, too: “This [boy] had a lonely look in his eye although he also had a quick smile.”

There’s not a person in the story who doesn’t like Newt. It’s probably because he likes everyone else, too. And he cries whenever any of them leaves or dies, even old Bolivar, the cook who can’t really cook, who returns to his family. He cries for Sean. He cries for Jake. He cries for Wilbarger. He cries for Deets. He cries for Gus. There’s only one man he doesn’t cry for — his father, Call.

“Dern, Newt,” Pea Eye said, more astonished than he had ever been in his life. “He gave you his horse and his gun and that watch. He acts like you’re his kin.”

“No, I ain’t kin to nobody in this world,” Newt said bitterly. “I don’t want to be. I won’t be.”

Despair in his heart, he mounted the Hell Bitch as if he had ridden her for years, and turned downstream.

It’s really too bad that he couldn’t stay with Clara, the woman who takes in people like strays. He’s a better horseman than July will ever be, or Dish for that matter. He’s the age of Clara’s oldest son Johnny, who died. But Johnny “had wildness in him.” He was like an unbroken colt. Not a boy of “gentle behavior,” like Newt. Clara offers that Newt can come back if he doesn’t like Montana.

“I’d like to,” Newt said. He meant it. Since meeting the girls and seeing the ranch, he had begun to wonder why they were taking the herd so far. It seemed to him Nebraska had plenty of room.

For most of the trip Newt had supposed that nothing could be better than being allowed to be a cowboy, but now that they had got to Nebraska, his thinking was changing … he had begun to see that a world with women in it could be even more interesting. The taste he had of that world seemed all too brief. Though he had been more or less scared of Clara all day, and was still a little scared of her, there was something powerfully appealing about her, too.

“Thank you for the picnic,” he said. “I never went on one before.”

That doesn’t sound like his father at all. Newt must have a lot of his mother in him.

 

The A Team: Maggie (The Ed Sheeran song, which is the sweetest song about the death of a prostitute that you’ll ever hear.)

We never meet Maggie, Newt’s mother, but we hear about her. She was the one woman Call loved, and he never forgave himself for it.

Call describes her as someone helpless and needy: “She had such frightened eyes,” and “She could never quite get her hair to stay fixed, and was always touching it nervously with one hand. ‘It won’t behave,’ she said, as if her hair were a child.” And most damning, “There was nothing hard about her — in fact, it was obvious to everyone that she was far too soft for the life she was living.”

Once Pea Eye overheard Maggie talking to the Captain, and she used his first name, Woodrow. But Woodrow never called Maggie by name —“Why was it important that he say her name?” In fact, Call can’t manage to call any woman by name. As Pea says, “whereas so far as he knew no one had ever heard of the Captain doing more than occasionally tipping his hat to a lady if he met one in the street.”

Did you catch the word “occasionally”? The Captain can’t even be counted on to consistently tip his hat to a woman. In contrast, I bet there’s not a woman to whom Gus didn’t tip his hat (at least).

We don’t know how Maggie died, except that she took up with Jake for a while after Call left her. We know after Call stopped coming, she was drunk most of the last year of her life. We know she and Gus were good friends, good enough for her to tell Gus that Newt is Call’s son.

Gus and Call almost parted ways over his mistreatment — his neglect — of Maggie. And when she died, that left Newt as a living memory of the one time Call ever let himself be human:“It was his forever, like the long scar on his back, the result of having let a horse throw him through a glass window.”

I’m betting that horse was a female, because from then on, the only females Call will deal with are horses. “Fillies are his only form of folly,” Augustus said. Call saddles up the unruly mare, the Hell Bitch, who begins the story by biting a hunk out of his shoulder and ends up as Newt’s inheritance.

Maggie was no Hell Bitch. But that’s the only way Call can see her. Or any woman.

Lonesome Dove, part 4. Clara: Love’s Labours Lost

HI 96 / LO 53, sunny

 

Love’s Labour’s Lost: Clara Allen

When I got to chapter 75 and finally met Clara Allen, I felt immense joy. By the time I finished the page, I knew she was Gus’s match. She is exactly the kind of woman who would be Gus’s true love. She’s the whole reason he goes on the cattle drive, just for the chance to see the woman who turned him down, to see if she might like to change her mind and relocate to that “orchard” in Texas.

For Clara, love is something you do. She may not like her husband, Bob, all that much, but every day she feeds him and changes his bed linens after he is severely injured by a horse. That’s love. Love for her two daughters gets her out of bed every morning, although the loss of her three sons makes her want to stay in bed. She loves horses and takes care of them with the help of Cholo. And she does love Gus — greets him with a big kiss right in front of her daughters and everyone — but she needs more than a man to share a bed with. She needs a friend.

“Where have you been for the last fifteen years?” she asked

“Lonesome Dove, mostly,” he said. “I wrote you three letters.”

“I got them,” she said. “And what did you accomplish in all that time?”

“Drank a lot of whiskey,” Augustus said.

Clara nodded and went back to packing the picnic basket. “If that was all you accomplished you could have done it in Ogallala and been a friend to me,” she said. “I lost three boys, Gus. I needed a friend.”

Gus protests that Clara was married.

“I was never so married but what I could have managed a friend,” she said.

I’ve never read more eloquent words about why a woman needs a friend.

Clara loves Gus enough to send him away. She convinces him to give Lorie the chance to stay, even though she can see that Lorie loves Gus the way Gus loves Clara.

Clara never judges Lorie for her past, either, and resents the fact that Gus thinks she might.

“Where’d you get Miss Wood?” she asked.

“She’s been in Lonesome Dove a while,” he said.

“Doing what?”

“Doing what she could, but don’t you hold it against her,” he said.

Clara looked at him coolly. “I don’t judge women that harsh,” she said.

The person Clara judges is Call. Oh, my goodness sakes alive! Talk about speaking truth to power. Gus may be, in his own words to Call, “the one man you don’t boss,” but Clara is the only woman who can boss Call. She does her best to parent Newt (who is the age her oldest boy would have been if he’d lived) when Call won’t.

“A live son is more important than a dead friend. Can you understand that?”

“A promise is a promise,” Call said.

“A promise is words — a son is a life,” Clara said, “A life, Mr. Call. I was better fit to raise boys than you’ve ever been, and yet I lost three. I tell you no promise is worth leaving that boy up there, as you have. Does he know he’s your son?”

“I suppose he does — I give him my horse,” Call said, feeling that it was hell to have her, of all women, talk to him about the matter.

“Your horse but not your name?” Clara said. “You haven’t even given him your name?”

“I put more value on the horse,” Call said. 

Even worse, Clara judges Call for his friendship to Gus.

“And I’ll tell you another thing: I’m sorry you and Gus McCrae ever met. All you two done was ruin one another, not to mention those close to you. Another reason I didn’t marry him was because I didn’t want to fight you for him every day of my life.”

Call drives away (on a mule, not his mare, the Hell Bitch, which he gave to Newt), and Clara goes back in the house, back to Lorie and Dish and July and Cholo and Martin and Betsey and Sally, back to her horses she’s so good with. Back to those early sunrises.

“But she loved the fine light of the prairie mornings; it had resurrected her spirits time after time through the years, when it seemed that dirt and cold and death would crush her. Just to see the light spreading like that, far on toward Wyoming, was her joy.”

Clara is my hero.

Lonesome Dove, part 3. Joshua Deets: Love Will Lead You Back

HI 90 / LO 53

Love Will Lead You Back: Deets

Deets’ job with the Hat Creek Outfit is to be the scout. He makes sure they pick the right trail, cross rivers at the right time, and take shelter even when it doesn’t look like a storm’s a coming.

There are so very many great sentences about Deets, but here’s one of my favorites. The words are so poetic, while being entirely plot driven: “Deets was good at mending things, and one night as he was mending Newt’s bridle Newt said what was on his mind.” So in this tight little sentence, Deets mends both an actual bridle and Newt’s troubled mind. It’s not poetry for the sake of poetry. It’s poetry as plot. That just makes my heart happy.

Deets is one of two black men in the book. Frog Lip is the other, and he’s a coldblooded killer. I appreciate that McMurtry didn’t give into some of the common tropes, such as black-man-as-funny-sidekick. Deets is a man of his time period. He earns every bit of respect he has from the men, and yet, he doesn’t earn it unconditionally. It’s the 1870s, after all.

The “n-word” does appear. It’s almost never said by nice people. For example, the Suggs brothers say it . Here’s what Gus says back to them: “You don’t appreciate a professional when you seen one. Men Deets hangs don’t have to dance on the rope, like some I’ve seen.” Let’s stop and recognize that Gus, a Texas Ranger with a medal from the governor, calls Deets a professional.

A similar thing happens when Dixon, a cavalry officer and a scamp, insults Deets, and then asks to take him. “No,” Call said. “I’d be afraid you’d mistreat him.”

It’s not perfect. It’s not without some degree of prejudice. But it’s honest. The truth is that Deets had a better life out West with ex-Texas Rangers, Call and Gus, than he would have had in Mississippi.

The first sign that Deets has earned respect is that Gus puts his name on the official Hat Creek Outfit Emporium sign. Not right away, of course. Not until Deets sulks, but hey, let’s appreciate the fact that Gus recognized the sulk and figured out what it was about and remedied it by adding Deets’ full name to the sign.

“Why, I’m Josh. Can you write that, Mr. Gus?”

“Josh is short for Joshua,” Augustus said. “I can write either one of them. Joshua’s the longest.”

“Write the longest,” Deets said. “I’m too busy for a short name.”

Deets dies holding a young Indian boy, lanced by a somewhat older Indian boy. All the hands are shaken, even those who aren’t exactly the most enlightened men. They grieve even though they are puzzled at their grief.

“Dish Boggett hadn’t said much to Deets, either, but he had often been cheered, from his position on the point, to see Deets come riding back through the heat waves. It meant he was on course, and that water was somewhere near. Dish wished he had said more to the man at some point.”

And now we get to the point — the only point in a book full of deaths — where I cried. When Call wrote his own sign over Deets’ grave and Gus hung his medal on it:

JOSH DEETS

SERVED WITH ME 30 YEARS.

FOUGHT IN 21 ENGAGEMENTS WITH THE COMANCHE AND KIOWA.

CHERFUL IN ALL WEATHERS, NEVER SHERKED A TASK.

SPLENDID BEHAVIOUR.

Here’s where McMurtry is such a good writer. Before Call wrote that in chapter 90, he said a good deal of it to himself way back in Lonesome Dove in chapter 8:

“Deets had ridden with him for years, through all weathers and all dangers, over country so barren they had more than once had to kill a horse to have meat, and in all those years Deets had given cheerful service.”

The best epitaph is the one you’ve been writing in your head for years.

Lonesome Dove, part 2. Big Zwey: I Will Always Love You

HI 80/ LO 54
I Will Always Love You: Big Zwey

If you’re not already hearing Whitney Houston in your head, cue the song now. Or if you prefer, Dolly Parton. Neither of these women knew it, but they were singing about a buffalo hunter named Big Zwey.

Big Zwey is a bit of a Forrest Gump character, famous for that line to Jenny, “I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is.” Big Zwey isn’t smart either, but he is loving. And to Elmira, of all people! At least Jenny knew she didn’t deserve Forrest.

To Big Zwey, to love someone means to take responsibility for them. He takes responsibility for Ellie on the whiskey boat, protecting her from the other men. He continues to be responsible for her when she joins him and Luke in the wagon. In fact, this sense of responsibility means — to Zwey — that he and Ellie are married. It has nothing to do with sex. In fact, Luke suspects that Big Zwey doesn’t know how things work in that department.

“Zwey had always been considered the dumbest of the dumb, but Luke knew that none of the hunters had suspected him of being that dumb. That much dumbness was hard to believe — Luke wanted to make sure he hadn’t misunderstood.

‘Now, wait a minute, Zwey,’ he said. ‘Why do you think that baby was yours?’

Zwey was silent a long time.

Luke pressed him.

“What’s the matter with you, Zwey?” Luke said. “You and Ellie ain’t really married. You ain’t married to somebody just because she comes on a trip with you.”

Zwey began to feel very sad — it might be true, what Luke said. Yet he liked to think that he and Ellie were married.

‘Well, we are,’ he said finally.

Ironically, Big Zwey proves to be the most faithful man to any woman in the entire novel. He never touches Ellie except to care for her when she is ill from a difficult childbirth. He goes when she says to, even though obeying her last command leads them both to their death at the hands of Indians.

At least when Jenny died, she left Forrest their son.

A poem from George Winston’s “Montana–A Love Story”

All words in caps from the song titles of George Winston’s “Montana—A Love Story,” my new current favorite writing music.

 

MONTANA

 

never been there       never heard the High Plains Lullaby

i’m Billy In The Low Land without a clue as to how to dance the Montana Glide

Nevertheless, Hello         i’m here at last

in big Sky country where You Send Me

i feel like Thumbelina next to these montañas

they say The Mountain Winds Call Your Name but i can’t hear the Music Box

not yet

 

i drive up to your house      it looks like The Little House I Used to Live In

where’s the Bamboo where you used to hide? Maybe there are Variations On it out back

 

i can’t bring myself to knock on the door

all i can do is sit here on the stoop, Twisting the Hay Rope

oh my Sweet Soul just ring the bell!

 

there’s so much i don’t understand    your words still don’t make sense

what is Gobajie? Goobajie? Valse de Frontenac?

i looked up Kojo No Tsuki       it means moon over the ruined castle

which sounds lovely and spooky

 

The Muse says it’s Raining in Her  she says it will stop when i go inside

inside is Joy, Hope, And Peace

 

you’re coming      i hear your footsteps

Goodnight Irene

Lonesome Dove, part 1. Lorena Wood: Love Isn’t Here / But It’s Somewhere

HI 83 / LO 54, sunny

For the rest of the summer, I am going to do a series on Lonesome Dove, even though doing so is probably right out of “9 Easy Ways to Alienate Your Readers.” I’m doing it anyway. I intend to spoil everything because there’s no other way to discuss these characters without discussing the whole dern book.

Yes, I’m beginning to talk like Pea Eye–a character I won’t cover because as I said, I only have a few weeks.

When I said it was a book about love and friendship, I started thinking of song titles or book titles or other phrases with the word “love” in them to describe each character. So, here are a few I won’t be covering:

Pea Eye Parker: Love Will Find a Way

Dish Boggett and July Johnson: Lookin’ for Love (In All the Wrong Places)

Xavier Wanz: Burning Love

Blue Duck: Loveless

But you’ve gotta start somewhere. I’ll start with Lorie.

 

Love Isn’t Here / But It’s Somewhere: Lorena Wood

(from Patty Griffin’s “I Don’t Ever Give Up.” You didn’t think I’d cover a Western without mentioning Patty Griffin, did you?)

“Lorena had never lived in a place where it was cool — it was her one aim.”

This sentence in chapter 3 introduces us to Lorie. Is it any surprise then that she ends up in Nebraska?

Lorie is 19 and a prostitute, due to being an orphan and falling in with a man who basically pimped her out. Then another man does the same thing. Finally she gets free and sets up shop doing the one thing she knows how to do. She has no education — she can’t even read anything except her own name.

Lorie knows her love has an effect on men, but she almost never picks the right one. Jake is a mistake. Xavier Wanz offers her money, almost $100, to marry him, and he would have taken her to San Francisco and been good to her. And Dish Boggett travels through blizzards to get back to her in Nebraska as soon as he can after the cattle ranch gets established. But she doesn’t care for either of them. She only loves Gus.

“Dish loved you and took the only way he had to get your attention,” Clara said.

“He didn’t get my attention,” Lorena said. “He didn’t get anything.”

“And Gus did the same and got everything,” Clara said. “Gus was lucky and Dish isn’t.”

Lorie is the perfect woman for Gus because he’s a “blabber” and she is silent. “Silent happened to be how she felt when men were with her.”

That silence probably saves her life when she’s abducted by Blue Duck: “Now speech had left her; fear took its place.” If not for her silence, she might have been dead when Gus reached her.

But Gus understands: “Gus was perfectly patient with her silence. He didn’t seem to mind it. He just went on talking as if they were having a conversation, talking of this and that. He didn’t talk about what had happened to her but treated her as he always had in Lonesome Dove.”

After Gus saves Lorie, he tells Call, “She won’t forget it, but she might outlive it.” What he doesn’t count on is that she never outlives her love for him.

Lorie comes out of her silence briefly when she leaves Gus to stay with Clara, but returns to it after Gus dies. From then on, she only talks with Clara’s daughter, Betsey. We begin to see that although Lorie survives, she’ll never really recover, not enough to love anyone but the man who saved her.

Lorie’s story ends when she faints beside Gus’s coffin. Her final word is silence.

 

Tour de Morning

It’s Tour de France time, and only those of you who watch the Tour will get this poem. It’s dedicated to Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, who’ve been the primary commentators of the race for years.

 

TOUR DE MORNING

 

It’s a glorious day here in Fredericksburg

dare I say it, the prettiest portion of the hill country.

There’s our man, Smith, an absolute beast of a man

just putting it in gear this morning.

 

And he has a formidable task in front of him—

to wake up. My goodness me.

He is wearing the mask of pain as he struggles to emerge from his bed.

He’s gone a bit pear-shaped

 

completely and utterly exhausted from yesterday’s effort.

That crash yesterday nearly did him in.

Bridge to the engine room—more power! But more power isn’t coming.

He’s cracked! Look at him. He’s in a spot of bother, I’m afraid.

 

Wait. He’s sitting up now. He’s turned himself inside out!

He must not panic at a time like this!

Look at him! I can’t believe it! He’s standing!

It’s like he appeared from out of nowhere, like Harry Potter taking off his invisibility cloak.

 

Yes! He’s up! Look out for the charge of the light brigade!

He’s walking now, tapping out a rhythm!

Oh, my! Look at him! He’s a cat among the pigeons!

That’s what I love about this man! He dug deep into his suitcase of courage

 

and now he’s about to give the performance of his life as he breaks away

far from the maddening crowd

into the kitchen

for coffee.

Beach Read

HI 93 / LO 63 , heat advisory remains in effect

 

Before I went to the beach this summer, I spent some time deciding what I would bring for my beach read. It’s a momentous decision. Must be fiction, of course. (I think you’ll get kicked off the sand for reading anything else.) I had planned to read something I’d put in the category of Chick Lit With Unexpected Depth, but I read that one in a day. I needed something long, something engrossing, and something—not to put too fine a point on it—that would change my life. I found it.

“Lonesome Dove,” by Larry McMurtry. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize. Winner of my heart.

Um, Megan, isn’t that a Western?

Why, yes. Yes, it is.

I’ve never read a Western before, probably because I am a lifelong Texan and want to prove that I’m above the stereotypes. But I’ve been lying to myself all these years. Apparently, all I really wanted was a story of friendship and love, most of which takes place along a cattle drive from the border with Mexico to the border with Canada.

After I finished the book, I read the reviews on Amazon. (I prefer to read Amazon reviews after a book, not before.) Here’s part of my favorite one from Jim Mitchell in St. Louis: “Nothing you read afterwards, for years to come, will compare. Lonesome Dove will spoil you and diminish everything else you read, no matter how good it may be.” He also calls it “emotionally devastating,” while admitting that’s not a very good way to sell the book. You know, I thought I knew something about emotional devastation. Then I met Lorie, the love of everyone’s life except the man she truly loved.

I know nothing of the world. Or at least, I didn’t. Not until I read the book. Or as Gus McCrae puts it, “It’s a fine world, though rich in hardship at times.”

As writers, we’ve all heard the mantra, “Show, Don’t Tell.” McMurtry does something I call “Tell, Then Show.” So, he’ll drop a sentence like this one: “Call had destruction in him and would go on killing when there was no need.” And 100 pages later, you see this sentence come true. McMurtry does this over and over again. Like Dickens, he lays the groundwork and rewards you for paying attention.

The book is as long as the cattle drive, 900-ish pages. And as I realized I was nearing the end of the 102 chapters, I slowed down. I didn’t want to miss anything.

I texted my dad, “I am pre-emptively sad. I do not want it to end!” I then referenced chapter 88, “which was one of the more satisfying chapters I’ve ever read.”

Dad texted back, “Maybe the best part of the best story! Love. Dad p.s. I know the feeling!!!”

You don’t have to read it. Most of you won’t. But for those of you who already have, please please please send me an email! I want to talk about Gus and Call and Newt and Lorie and Jake and Clara and Roscoe and Janey and July and Joe and Elmira and Big Zwey and Blue Duck and Po Campo and Bolivar and Pea Eye and Dish and the O’Brien brothers and Deets. I miss them.