Monday, January 17, 2011

Dead Man's Walk

I decided to get a quick start on my 2011 goal of re-reading Larry McMurtry’s four-book “Lonesome Dove series” in the correct chronological order in which the books occur– rather than in the order in which they were published.  That meant starting with Dead Man’s Walk, a book that surprised me by being better this second time around than it was on the first.  As I recall, I rated the book a four back in 1995, but I am giving this re-reading a solid five-star rating.

Written in 1995, ten years after McMurtry’s huge success with Lonesome Dove, Dead Man’s Walk was billed as a prequel to that masterpiece.  The timing was good.  Hardcore fans of Lonesome Dove were already intimately familiar with the 1989 television movie of the same name, and they were probably watching episodes of the new miniseries by that name that ran in 1994 and 1995.  So, most fans would find it hard to resist a new book that featured teenaged versions of Augustus McCrae and W.F. Call, two of the most beloved characters in the Western genre.

Gus and Call are literally two “young pups” when it comes to the ways of the world, although Gus is already showing his delight in keeping company with the nighttime ladies who so willingly offer him a good time – as long as he has the cash to pay for it.  When the two young men, trying to survive Texas on their own, randomly meet, they quickly form a bond that will last them for the remainder of their lives. 

At loose ends, and hoping for a little adventure, the two join up with a raggedy bunch of Texas Rangers on two different missions, both of which the boys will be lucky to survive.  It is the second trek into the Texas desert, during which the Rangers must cross the “Dead Man’s Walk” from west Texas to New Mexico that gives the book its title.  But, before the boys and their fellow survivors begin what seems like a certain death march, they must first survive the attentions of the Comanche, Buffalo Hump, and the Apache, Gomez, two men who will haunt Gus and Call for rest of their lives. 

Dead Man’s Walk pulls no punches when it comes to the raunchy lifestyle of the nineteenth century Texas Rangers or the torture-focused warfare the Apache and Comanche tribes waged against the white settlers encroaching upon their hunting grounds.  To say that the book is not for the fainthearted reader is an understatement.  What makes Dead Man’s Walk so intriguing, and atypical of the popular western genre, is that McMurtry does not take sides in the conflict between the settlers and the Indians.  He presents the good and bad elements of both groups and leaves it up to the reader to decide the “rightness” or “wrongness” of the conflict. 

In addition to meeting Gus, Call, Buffalo Hump and Gomez, the reader will delight in spotting the young Clara, as well.  That she was “love at first sight for Gus” is certain; what was on flirtatious Clara’s mind remains to be determined. 

Dead Man’s Walk is a great western adventure but, as usual with a McMurtry novel, character development does not take a back seat to plot.  The book is filled with memorable secondary characters, good guys and villains alike, and its ending (although it might seem farfetched to some) works perfectly for those that grew up on old-fashioned television and movie Westerns.

This is good stuff.

(This is my favorite piece of Lonesome Dove trivia, although it will not surprise dedicated fans of the book.  Lonesome Dove originally was a 1970 screenplay meant to star John Wayne as Call, Jimmy Stewart as McCrae, and Henry Fonda as Jake Spoon.  Wayne pulled out of the movie, followed by Jimmy Stewart, and the whole thing fell apart.  McMurtry decided to turn the screenplay into a novel, and the rest is history.  Even stranger, James Garner was originally offered the Gus McCrae part in the television movie, but he had to turn it down due to his ill health...and along came Robert Duval to forever claim that character for himself.  And then, Garner got to play the roll of Call in the miniseries for another of the books in the Lonesome Dove saga.  How cool is that?)

Rated at: 5.0 
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