Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (Simon & Schuster: $18.95; 843 pp.)

<i> Horn writes on entertainment for The Times. </i>

“Lonesome Dove” is Larry McMurtry’s loftiest novel, a wondrous work, drowned in love, melancholy, and yet, ultimately, exultant.

In “Lonesome Dove,” as in all of his previous stories, McMurtry lays the hope and despair of ordinary people’s lives side by side. He celebrates a world abundant with calamity and a human spirit wistful but prevailing.

McMurtry’s backdrop is America’s 19th-Century West, a post-Civil War land of cowboys, cattle, sagebrush and myth. That’s hardly a surprise: Today’s West has long been his homeland and the source of his genius. His novels, which include “The Last Picture Show” and “Moving On,” have been chronicles of the modern-day frontier, ruminations on how the Old West is slowly--but inexorably--being swallowed by a more mechanical, less romantic civilization. In “Lonesome Dove,” the chronicler of today’s West turns to yesterday’s West to drink, as it were, directly from his source.


McMurtry’s characters are as attached to the land as they ever will be to each other. The inhabitants of Lonesome Dove, the Texas city from which this story rises, have been born spang into the hands of the land, to wander it and learn the sadness of it until, eventually, it hands them back. “The earth,” remarks Gus McCrae, the novel’s central character, “is mostly just a boneyard. But pretty in the sunlight.”

Indeed, the presence of the land for the characters in “Lonesome Dove” is as much a controlling factor as it was for Molly in “Leaving Cheyenne” or for Danny in “All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers.” Here, as there, the land plays a role of its own. It dictates the action.

But although the land and the people in those earlier works remained vivid, the narratives in which they were set were vague, sometimes rambling. In “Terms of Endearment,” for example, setting and character were well-crafted, but the story as a whole did not linger in the memory.

Writing “Lonesome Dove,” though, McMurtry has produced a compelling and memorable epic without sacrificing the fine detail with which he has always worked. This is his strongest, most cogent narrative to date. And that is its triumph.

Gus, white-haired and well-read, is an intellectual on horseback. His partner in the Hat Creek Cattle Co. is Woodrow Call, not as interested in women or conversation as his confederate. Both are aging Texas Rangers, no longer in service, but still possessing all their Rangering skills.

Together, they lead the men of their cattle company plus an assortment of colorful cowhands whom they pick up en route on a laborious drive north, pushing 3,000 head toward the untested and unknown reaches of Montana. On the way, they encounter the wrath of nature: hailstorms, dust storms, snowstorms, swollen rivers, water moccasins, locusts and, of course, Indians. The story is reminiscent of a number of Westerns. The deftness with which it is told is not.


It is an eager crowd that leaves the comforts of Lonesome Dove behind. Yet, the cowboys aren’t even sure why they’re abandoning their Texas sticks. Perhaps Manifest Destiny has pointed them north. Perhaps not. “Me and Call have always liked to get where we started for,” Gus says, “even if it don’t make a damn bit of sense.”

Gus is a high-plains philosopher, drifting between his cattle and his thoughts. He’s happy to do most any job, however dangerous, as long as he doesn’t have to leave his saddle. He’s as uncomfortable with a shovel as he is with an empty bottle of liquor. He’d rather be an outlaw than a doctor or a lawyer. Whatever he would be, on his horse, with his shoulder-length gray hair flowing in the wind, Gus is a figure of enchantment, a crafty and fearless warrior.

There are two women in Gus’ life. Lorena, as delicate as a desert rose, is a reluctant prostitute whose dreams of San Francisco and a better life propel her north with the cattle company. Clara is Gus’ old--but constant--flame. Unlike Lorena’s beauty, hers is earthy. She is as fused with the land as he. When we first see her, she’s milking a cow on her ranch, a remote outpost hunkered down defiantly in the wilderness.

There is a glorious individuality in both Clara and Lorena. McMurtry’s women have always been his superior creations; these two are no exception. They are, if implicitly, feminists; Clara more so than Lorena. They are also leaders--willful, passionate and charismatic.

Lorena loves Gus most. Gus loves Clara most. But more than Clara, Gus loves his freedom. Men capable of happy marriage don’t seem to interest McMurtry much at all. Still, the evolution of Gus’ relationship with Lorena is deeply interesting and, in this historical novel, deeply contemporary. From mutual contempt, their relationship changes into a love so strong that sex, somehow, weakens it. Gus and Lorena become best of friends, dependent on the other, yet often unable to express their needs and their hopes. As painful as that might be, their discovery of each other is compelling, poignant reading. Gus is determined to make Lorena his friend and lover but is willing to watch Lorena fall deeply for another man with the prescience that everything will work its way out, more or less.

Thus, when Gus rescues Lorena from Blue Duck, the book’s mandatory Indian villain, he refuses to linger over his own heroics. Instead, he talks to Lorena, patiently drawing out from her the traumatic kidnaping experience that has left her mute and withdrawn. Gus is her opiate. “Gus was perfectly patient with her silence,” writes McMurtry. “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.”

The other men of the cattle company are not as lucky, at least not in love. Newt is the greenest member of the team. He spends as much time weeping as he does anything else. Almost everything, as young Newt sees it, is sad.

Newt longs to be accepted, to go on the trail with the men, to be given responsibility, even to hold a rifle. He wants so much to please, he can barely help but fail. But in the end, McMurtry rescues Newt, too.

Throughout this masterful work, there is hope and an understated sense of gratitude. As one cowhand puts it neatly, near death and facing the amputation of his gangrenous leg, “It’s a fine world, though rich in hardships at times.”

At the end of the journey, no riches wait. The journey is riches enough.