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Of course it's not better than Pulitzer-winning Lonesome Dove. How could it be? At 477 pages, Texas math clearly places it inferior to LD's 843 pages. But this prequel is probably more satisfying than the sequel, Streets of Laredo. How could it not be? I mean, which would you rather have? Gus McCrae, barely out of his teenage years, that magnificent twinkling toward life beginning to emerge and shine, or Gus McCrae dead? How about that sly, upturned mouth bending around observances like, “It's Indians talking . . . They're talking in animal” (Simon & Schuster, ISBN 068480753X, 1st trade edition, c.1995, p.40), or that same gullet silent and full of dirt? Woodrow Call is the baseplate for Gus' zesty teeter-totter ride. Each engenders a part of the other. Dead Man's Walk is a rare opportunity to jump into the buckboard with them for these consummate Western adventures that journey through 3 1/2 novels. If you haven't read Lonesome Dove yet, this is where you should start.
Themes? Plot? Symbolism? Who cares? It is all about characters and events in this folk tale strung together like a mule team across the desert, and is historically identified as the Texas Santa Fe Expedition of 1841. Underpinnings to a real past are further set by introducing legendary cowpuncher Charlie Goodnight (p.204) as a character, although the real man wasn't in Texas yet and only 5 years old at the time. For the history researcher, many facts and fictions wrestle around each other, but the undisputed purpose of this expedition was to slip away the wealth traveling the Santa Fe Trail from the control of the Mexicans and into the pockets of Texans. “We mean to annex it,” says scoundrel Ranger Colonel Cobb, soft-peddling that “we may have to hang a few Mexicans . . . [but] we'll soon whip ‘em back” (p.205). Santa Fe is sold as having “silver and gold piled everywhere” (p.89), ripe for plundering. Never mind that it's 750 miles through un-mapped and hostile Indian country, that the New Mexicans hate the Texans' presumptuousness not to mention their arrogance, or that there's an army 10 times stronger waiting to march everyone down another 2000 miles to Mexico City for trial. Factually, it was a minor negotiation in the eventual Mexican-American War just 5 years later, but in the novel, this trek disintegrates in San Lazaro, a leper colony on the outskirts of El Paso. Of the 200-plus Texans, 43 make it to a peaceful surrender, or, as Bigfoot says, “all we've done is march fifteen hundred miles to make fools of ourselves” (p.328). Unfortunately, the worse still looms, as Call receives the whipping of his life even before the survivors are stripped naked for the remaining 200 miles over the Jornada del Muerto —the stretch of Hell noted by the novel's title—of which only 5 will live to tell of its odious torments.
But where else do you get to drink horse urine, direct from the bladder? Or shoot a buffalo 30 times, only to have him walk away in disregard? How ‘bout a grizzly bear breaking you out of jail? Or see a Lady Godiva-like naked leper armed only in a huge boa constrictor backing down blood-lusting Apaches? Plus you get to shoot Indian boys hiding under dead mules floating downriver, and test your intrepidity against a Comanche chief so powerful he carries “his own hump, a mass of gristle as broad as his back—it rose as high as his ears” (p.185). Character-wise, Dead Man's Walk is a veritable plethora of oddities from the human scat of scalphunters and pedophiliac slavers, to the often-naked, rotund Matilda “Great Western” Roberts, whore and surrogate mother to this troop of naïve jacklegs.
There is a second volume of tailings called Comanche Moon that demands consideration before the pure gold of Lonesome Dove should be excavated. All in all—and not counting Streets of Laredo —this makes over 2,000 pages of Gus and Call. Larry McMurtry is a little too prolific for my Pantheon of Distinguished Writers, but this series, if not the Grail, is at least a bible of Western genre literature from the late 20th Century, and needs to be on every reader's shelf who lives this side of the Rockies.
And as for modern-day Texas, well, here's my Rant . . .