I recently re-read Lonesome Dove. I wanted to read it more critically this time, to really consider why it captivated me so excruciatingly the first time I read it. At nearly 1000 pages, the worst thing about it is that it’s not longer. I feel like I could live in that book. If I had to choose one story to take to a deserted island, that would be it. And it held up on the second read, just as it had on the first.
So I got to thinking, what is it about McMurtry’s writing that is so effing awesome? Well, down at the good old Silver Lake Public Library I found myself a few other books by the man and set to reading. What I discovered was that I don’t actually love all of his writing. I couldn’t even finish Leaving Cheyenne. But I couldn’t quite say why. This seemed like a tremendous opportunity.
I pulled a passage from Leaving Cheyenne at random:
When we got to Molly’s she bandaged my hand and we sat up in the kitchen, eating all the stray food and talking over old times. We were all in high spirits and Johnny told us a lot of stories about life on the plains. Finally me and him slept awhile on her living room floor, and about sunup she came in in her nightgown and bathrobe and woke us up and cooked the best breakfast I ever ate.
Then I flipped to a page of Lonesome Dove:
By the time she got to her back porch the rain was slackening and the sun was already striking little rainbows through the sparkle of drops that still fell. Pea had walked on home, the water dripping more slowly from his hat. He never mentioned the incident to anyone, knowing it would mean unmerciful teasing if it ever got out. But he remembered it. When he lay on the porch half drunk and it floated up in his mind, things got mixed into the memory that he hadn’t even known he was noticing, such as the smell of Mary’s wet flesh. He hadn’t meant to smell her, and hadn’t made any effort to, and yet, the very night after it happened the first thing he remembered was that Mary had smelled different from any other wet thing he had ever smelled.
In looking at these two passages, as a writer, the first difference I see is in the detail. The first passage just sort of tells what they did. The second has the most wonderful details: little rainbows through the sparkle of drops, the smell of Mary’s wet flesh. And I love the phrase “different from any other wet thing he had ever smelled.” It made me giggle, and it evokes the smell of wet things. Wet things smell different than dry things.
The second thing I notice is the passing of time. Both passages cover the better part of a day, but the second has more context to the passing: the water dripping from his hat on the walk home, laying on the porch half drunk thinking of this woman. Compare that to “me and him slept a while on her living room floor.” I guess you could chalk that up to details as well. Maybe that’s why Lonesome Dove is so long. It’s all the details. But I’ll tell you, it’s those details that make it absolutely delicious.
The third is the narrator. Lonesome Dove is third person, jumping from character to character (to character – there are a lot of them), while Leaving Cheyenne is first person, which is inherently limiting. You just can’t tell as grand a story from first person. The main character in Leaving Cheyenne would never notice rainbows in raindrops. It just wouldn’t fit.
My novel is in first person, but I really feel like it needs to be. It’s a personal story. It’s subjective. It does limit perspective a bit, but I think the lesson here is to bring the details, make it visceral. My character is not above noting details, so I think there is reason to aspire to the heights of Lonesome Dove. Not that I could ever write something as genius as that, but a girl can dream…