‘Streets of Laredo’ by Larry McMurtry

Larry McMurtry’s first nine novels were contemporary tales that debunked the persistent and often destructive myth of the Old West. Then along came “Lonesome Dove,” full of the very romance and legend he seemed to abhor, and it turned out to be his masterpiece. And even though McMurtry’s best characters were usually women--Aurora Greenway, Patsy Carpenter, Jill Peel all come to mind--his greatest creation is Gus McCrae, the grizzled Texas Ranger who dies unforgettably at the end of “Lonesome Dove.”

After that book, perhaps feeling guilty over his apparent betrayal of the modern and the feminine, McMurtry came right back and published two short novels, “Anything for Billy” and “Buffalo Girls,” that parody our heroic Western past, plus three more set in modern Texas, all full of strong women.

Now comes the latest course correction, the official sequel to “Lonesome Dove.” Few recent novels could survive comparison to “Lonesome Dove,” and sure enough, “Streets of Laredo” is neither as big nor as great, but it is still one of McMurtry’s most powerful and moving achievements.

The time is the early 1890s. It’s been 20 years since Gus McCrae and his old friend Captain Woodrow Call said goodby to Texas and headed north to Montana with a herd of cattle. Such startling forward leaps in time are typical of McMurtry’s other sequels; two decades also separate the action of “Texasville” from “The Last Picture Show,” of “The Evening Star” from “Terms of Endearment,” and of “Some Can Whistle” from “All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers.” But “Streets of Laredo” is less a sequel than an anti-sequel. Nothing has turned out as anyone hoped. A few bad Montana winters destroyed Call’s dream of a ranching empire. Crueler still, Call’s son, Newt, the logical hero for the sequel, was killed years ago by a horse given to him by his father.

Call and a few other survivors of the Hat Creek Cattle Co. are back in Texas, right where they started.

The railroad czars of 1890 need a bounty hunter to track down and kill a particularly vicious train robber named Joey Garza. They hire the legendary ex-Texas Ranger, Captain Call, who lives alone in a small shack provided gratis by Charles Goodnight, a successful Texas rancher and one of the many real-life figures who commingle with McMurtry’s fictional ones. The ensuing cross-country manhunt provides the novel’s frame.

Gus McCrae knew when to leave the stage, dying before illness or old age slowed him down, but Call has lived long enough to finally overreach himself. He is 70 years old and failing, while his adversary, Joey Garza, is young and clever. To make matters worse, several other psychotic killers are loose, and Call takes it upon himself to clean up the whole mess. The result is a bloody quest along both sides of the Rio Grande, as the bandits make mincemeat of Call’s poorly assembled posse.

Call is just too worn out to be the real hero of “Streets of Laredo.” That task falls to Gus’ former love, Lorena Wood. Twenty years after riding out of “Lonesome Dove,” where she had been the most popular prostitute in town, Lori is also back in Texas, this time with five children, a farm and the unlikeliest husband: old Pea Eye, the shy, soft-spoken, ex-Ranger who served Gus and Call loyally through all their past adventures.

Lorena changed Pea Eye from a restless Ranger into a contented farmer who wants “to hold his wife in his arms, not bury corpses killed by outlaws.” But a part of him will always belong to Captain Call. In the battle of “woman against man,” as Lorena calls it, she has “her body, her spirit, her affection and passion, the children she and Pea shared, the life they shared on the farm that had cost them all her money and years of their energy. It was that against the old man with the gun, and the way of life that ought to have ended.”

Call divides the history of the West into two parts, the “exploring part” and the “settling part.” “Lonesome Dove” took place just as the exploring part ended. Twenty years later, he realizes, “the settling had happened,” and Call has become “one of the old ones of the West” who were “just echoes of what had been.”

Like the Flying Dutchman, Call is a wraith from the past, luring others to their doom. Lorena knows she “could change her husband’s habits, and she had, but she couldn’t change his history and it was in his history that the problem lay.” When Call asks Pea to join him once more, Pea cannot refuse. “It would never be finished,” Lorena realizes, speaking for all the families shattered by the lures of frontier dreams, “not while the Captain was alive, it wouldn’t.”

Joey Garza gets his comeuppance in the end, but not from Call or any of the other men sent to kill him. Sensing disaster, Lorena leaves her Panhandle farm and heads south to rescue her husband. Out in the desert, she first saves Call. Finding him alone and dying, having been ambushed by Garza, Lorena skillfully performs a grisly operation with nothing but a canteen of water and a bowie knife.

“You have to be gentle with menfolk,” Lorena tells another woman. “They aren’t tough, like us.” Gus McCrae chose to die of gangrene rather than allow his wounded leg to be amputated; he couldn’t bear the thought of ending his days sitting on a porch, dependent on women. But it is Call, the most committed women-hater of the original bunch, who will end his days on that porch, surrounded by women.

Three years ago, October 23, 1990, in an essay in “The New Republic,” McMurtry gently chided recent revisionist historians who thought they had just discovered what most Westerners knew all along: that westward expansion was hard on the native population, hard on the settlers and hard on the land itself. McMurtry is utterly unsentimental about the past; “Streets of Laredo” has no shortage of miserable, starving, suicidally depressed characters, crushed by frontier hardship. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t interested in the myths that kept people going. The revisionists, he wrote in 1990, “may have been accurate about the experience, but they simplify or ignore the emotions and imaginings that impelled the Western settlers despite their experience. . . . Fantasy provided part of the fiber that helped them survive the severities that the land put them to.”

“Streets of Laredo” is the bridge between the grand myths of “Lonesome Dove” and McMurtry’s contemporary novels of domesticity and broken dreams. Just like Aurora Greenway in “Terms of Endearment” and “The Evening Star,” Lorena is the life-force, the fierce survivor, the bearer of the West’s dream of regeneration. “If you live,” Lorena cries out to Call, just before saving his life, “you oughtn’t to stay a killer. I didn’t stay a whore!” The West is dead, long live the West.