"The book I'm looking for,' says the blurred figure, who holds out a volume similar to yours, 'is the one that gives the sense of the world after the end of the world, the sense that the world is the end of everything that there is in the world, that the only thing there is in the world is the end of the world."
- Italo Calvino, If on a winter's night a traveler

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurty

When I was a senior in college I took a class called "The Psychology of Transcendence." It was a real hippie sort of thing. Half of the class was about Attachment Theory, and half  revolved around meditation and books about Zen Buddhism and poetry by Mary Oliver. After class my house-mates and I would sit around and talk about intimacy and family and God. It had (and has, I assume) a reputation around campus for being a Life-Changer. This is because it will probably change your life!

The professor for this class suggested--among other things--that the students commit to a "Daily Spiritual Practice," by which he meant meditating every day. The idea (I think) is that doing so would provide perspective and grounding. It's a sound piece of advise, and I haven't taken it seriously enough. But I remember thinking about its similarity in design to two Practices to which I already had a casual commitment: Singing and... (you guessed it!) Reading.

For whatever reason, and without giving it much thought, I have held fast to the belief that there is something good and worthwhile and important about reading books. This is beyond the desire to learn things, or to seem smart, or to relax, or be entertained.  This is the sense that somehow the act itself--that daily going off somewhere to be quiet and alone, to communicate with an author and experience the world through her eyes, to sit and chew on the texture of her words--has the capacity to slowly fill you up in preparation for the ways in which Life insists on emptying you out.

Lonesome Dove is an 800-page Pulitzer Prize-winning western. It has a broad cast of characters and spacious interests, but it's generally about two ex-Texas Rangers named Gus and Call making a cattle drive from Southwestern Texas to Montana. Gus is gregarious, whimsical, and lazy, while Call is rough, hard-working and practical. As you might imagine, they and their party come across all sorts of small mishaps through which they must navigate. But the real power of the book comes from its comfort with the characters and its sense of place.

It's a deliberate, meaty book. Things happen slowly. Each character lives his or her life at its own pace, and as a reader we are simply made witness to the particulars of it. It's not until around page 200 that the characters even begin the cattle drive, leaving the titular town behind. Before that they just kind of... hang around: they talk to each other, drink, gamble, dig a well, bake some sourdough biscuits.

The Corrections pretty dramatically altered my ideas about what "character-driven" fiction really looks like. And neither Gus nor Call are "realistic" by any stretching of that term, but there is nevertheless something informative about them. As in any good Western, there's something both terrestrial and mythological about the characters and their mission.They're everyday sorts of people, but by virtue of their place in that particular historical setting, their story can't help but rise above its regional interests.

I was raised in a suburban tract home, and I'm about as much a Cowboy as I am an Astronaut or a Pirate. Nevertheless, Westerns have always held a special place in my heart, and I think it has to do with growing up in the desert. There's just something about big, empty, uninviting, beautiful landscapes and the lonely people who inhabit them that has always felt like home to me. And the novel's journey from Texas to Montana mirrors my own important migration "up north."

The last eighteen months have been hard for me, sometimes. They've been a crash course in rejection, disappointment and compromise. I guess this is what being an adult is like (?!?). I don't want to complain too much, because Duh. But my most meaningful personal and professional goals have all sputtered and stalled at the start line, and I've become freshly acquainted with Frustration and Shame.

I'm not done with this book. I read 10 to 20 pages each day, and I'm only about a third of the way through the thing. I may put together some more thoughts when I finish, but I doubt it. I have some other books coming in at the library for me. There's a copy of Flannery O'Conner's Complete Stories sitting on my dresser that is just begging to have some teeth sunk into it. But for the next two months or so I'll continue to chip away at Gus and Call's story. Something about the book, about the pace and the breadth, has been exactly what I've needed at the end of a day. Sitting alongside those characters has been my version of a Daily Spiritual Practice, the activity that--providing foundation beneath my life--reminds me what is constant and valuable.

The Corrections was a better book in every conceivable way, and The Moral Landscape was more interesting to talk about. But Lonesome Dove--at least right now--is exactly the book I'm looking for.


  1. "Into the Wild" has some really cool segments on people who have been drawn to the desert in similar ways. I don't know if you've read it, and I know the book is has played a pretty strange roll amongst 20 something males since it was publish, but their are some outrageous accounts of fascination with the desert that might be worth looking into. There are least worth looking up in the library and reading reading for an hour.

    Additionally, I hope you've seen 127 hours by now. Awesome and very right up this ally.

    Did you finish that Muir biography? Also, can we go to Yosemite when I get back? Yeah....that sounds awesome...or Zion.

  2. Really great stuff Spence.

    Just finished reading Water for Elephants and I really enjoyed it... I don't know if I would call it a slow novel necessarily, but there is definitely a sense of place that is developed over the course of the story. It's been a while since I've burned through a book that fast and I have to admit, it was kind of fun. Maybe I'll make reading for pleasure a Daily Practice... or at least make it a higher priority than looking at funny internet pictures.

  3. Thanks for the comments, friends!

    How did you both randomly read a two-month old entry on the same day?

    And Brett: totally. When do you get back? I'll be done with all my jobs around August, and looking for something to do.

  4. I get back just before Christmas. We're going to hit up Kalispell, JH, Boise (where we're likely going to end up) for some apartment shopping, then San Diego (to complete the world tour-- the place we set off from) and then grab our stuff in Las Vegas in mid to late January in Las Vegas... and then moving that to wherever we're going to live. I don't know if you'll still be in Vegas but we'll have to hang out at some point. Maybe we can see if this half-assing-his-way-to-being-a-"history"-doctor Kurt will join us in Zion for some river walking and cave stuff fun. But likely that won't happen until the spring.