The year I turned 40, I decided to celebrate/ignore/escape/memorialize my birthday by travelling through Africa from Cairo to Cape Town. As I was about to leave Los Angeles on this epic four-month adventure, a friend handed me a book for the plane. It was an already well-thumbed copy of Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry; and it was a must-read, my friend insisted.
At 994 pages, the paperback was two-inches thick and weighed more than I wanted to carry around in my backpack in those pre-Kindle days. Also, I didn’t read westerns. I decided I would just leave the book on the plane. My genre of choice was (and is) mystery novels and I had one I was looking forward to getting stuck into on the long flight.
And it was a very long flight. I finished my mystery crossing the Atlantic. Then, about a hundred years after takeoff when we should have been arriving in Cairo, we were told were being diverted to Istanbul because a wind storm made it impossible to land in Egypt. But before we could land there, we were diverted again to Ankara because of a snowstorm in Istanbul. It would be a while, we were told. So with nothing else to do, I opened Lonesome Dove.
By page ten I was hooked. The writing was so spare but so vivid that I already knew exactly where I was and who the characters were: and I loved them. The five hours we sat on that Turkish runway passed fast.
Lonesome Dove oddly became one of my abiding memories of that African trip. It was my solace when I got sick in Egypt. I’d spent over $700 before I LA to get shots for an alphabet soup of hepatitis; typhus, typhoid, tetanus, yellow fever, and so forth. I’d bought four months worth of anti-malarial meds and just-in-case antibiotics. And in Egypt I got the flu. Between trips to the pyramids and museums and bazaars, I shivered in my high-ceilinged room at the venerable Windsor Hotel sipping hibiscus flower tea for my throat and reading.
The sad view from my Cairo hotel room, a world away from Lonesome Dove
Then as Gus and McCall trekked north from Texas to Montana, they kept me company as I traveled south through The Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, and Malawi. I became thrilled that there were 994 pages; then as I neared the end, was desolate that there were only 994 pages. I finally read the last word somewhere in Zambia.
Reading Lonesome Dove on board the ferry Ilala on Lake Malawi
The smart thing to do would have been to hand the book off to some other traveler, but I was unreasonably reluctant to part with it. So it came with me down through Zimbabwe to South Africa, then to England for a stay, and finally back to the States.
I became a Lonesome Dove evangelist, trying to press it on everyone I talked to. I discovered that people fell into two groups: those who’d already read it (it had, after all, been on the New York Times bestseller list for 24 weeks) and those who were adamant about the fact that they did not read westerns even if they had won a Pulitzer Prize. In other words, I didn’t have a lot of luck and my battered copy stayed put on my overstuffed bookshelves.
That was not the end of it for me, of course. It had introduced me to the writing of Larry McMurtry and I had a backlog of his work to catch up on like Terms of Endearment and The Last Picture Show. And there were prequels and sequels of Lonesome Dove to come, not the mention the wonderful mini-series made from the book. In my view, the best, most well cast film adaptation of a book ever.
Robert Duval and Tommy Lee Jones as Gus and McCall: perfect
I was happy to learn that McMurtry owned a huge second-hand bookstore in Texas; since August, 2012, sadly gone the way of many independent bookstores.
McMurtry's much missed massive book store in Archer, Texas
Most recently, I learned something about him from Magic Trip, the documentary made from the raw footage shot by Ken Kesey on the famous cross country adventure in the Magic Bus. McMurtry was a friend and they stopped off to see him in Texas. He was already married with kids, and is seen looking mildly bemused in his Buddy Holly glasses as the Merry Pranksters descend on his family. (As a side note, McMurtry is now married to Kesey’s widow.)
You'd be bemused too if this showed up at your door.
Anyway, years later I finally managed to persuade someone take my copy of the book. A friend was moving from Los Angeles to Austin and I insisted she could not in all conscience live in Texas without having read it. So she took it with about as much enthusiasm as I had first received it. From time to time over the next decade, I’d ask if she’d read it and the answer was always, “Not yet.”
Now picture pages flying off a calendar as more time went by and I moved to Mexico. My first year here, my friend from Austin came to spend Christmas. “Look what I’ve brought to read,” she said showing me my familiar old friend. So that was the end of her for that vacation. When she finally looked up from the book, it was time to leave for the airport. After she’d gone, I found it sitting on the night stand.
So twenty-five years, three continents, thirteen countries (if you count sitting on the runway in Turkey) and way too many cities to add up later, Lonesome Dove is back on my bookshelf. I opened it up when I started writing this but at page five firmly snapped it shut. I have things to do.
But if you haven't read it ... seriously, you have to read this book. I don't care if you don't like westerns, you have to read this book. Just read a few pages and you'll be hooked. Trust me. Read this book. I'll even lend you this one if you promise to give it back.