Streets of Laredo

About 10 years ago I saw the television adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s novel, “Streets of Laredo,” his sequel to “Lonesome Dove.” I had recently become a father, and that may have colored my judgment a bit, but I found “Laredo” to be, among many things, most memorably a story about parenthood. Motherhood, in this case.

I only saw the movie once, but I never forgot Maria Sanchez’s love for her son Joey Garza, who did not love her in the least and happened to be a cold-blooded killer, hunted by Captain Call.

Last month when I decided to read McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove” series, I wrote down the few things I could still remember about the “Streets of Laredo” movie, ten years on. I remembered Maria’s commitment to her criminal son, and I recalled her saying late in the story, “I am his mother; if I do not stay with him, who will” — or words to that effect. I still also remembered Lorena putting her young children on a train, to keep them safe, having decided to find her husband and bring him back from the dangerous manhunt for Joey Garza. Sissy Spacek knocks it out of the park in that scene, with a sad form of courage, as she herds her kids aboard and turns away from the train.

There were a few other things I dimly remembered — all spoilers, in case anyone is trying to avoid those:

  • the young killer easily capturing Call, and nearly killing him;
  • Pea Eye turning out to be a capable killer in the end, far more competent than he’d been in the “Lonesome Dove” movie; I remembered him in this movie crawling low to the ground and getting his man;
  • the villain shooting right in the face of the same guy who got shot in the face in “The Untouchables” (“Well, at least I’ve seen your face”);
  • Call reading a book to a young girl in the very last scene

After reading “Streets of Laredo” last month, I went back to the movie, and it’s five hours so I didn’t see every scene, but I can’t find where Maria says the line that I’d remembered all these years. Am I watching an incomplete copy of the movie? Or did “Streets of Laredo,” ten years ago, make me think of some other movie that had that line, or some real-life mother who said this, and now I’ve conflated the memory? Or did that line simply come out of my own reflections about how a mother could continue loving — not blindly loving, but remaining committed to — such a son.

It’s not as if such an idea is completely new to us. We see it, or at least shades of it, in real life; and we’ve seen this kind of love a lot in the movies, in one form or another. Luke Skywalker is the example we all know of a child still remaining committed to, still trying to save, a killer who is his father.

But somehow that is much easier to digest, and not just because it’s “Star Wars”, rather than a novel about a hard life in old Mexico. Loving a parent who’s gone corrupted, particularly if you’ve never known him, as in Luke’s case, is far more palatable than a son like Joey Garza, who regards his four-times married mother as a whore and is a unfeeling psychopath, though no one can say how it happened. There was no neat turn to something easily named like the “dark side,” though he’s clearly gone there. And if there’s any good left in him, Maria does not seem to have much hope for it. She continues loving him despite the knowledge that he’s probably lost.

Maria, it must be said, is not a sentimental woman who cannot see evil. She sees little but evil in her life, having been brutalized and used by men from the age of 10. She’s a capable woman, who knows what people want and how easily they kill; she raises her two other children, a blind girl, and a mentally impaired boy, capably, with the help of one of the few good men in the novel, Billy Williams; she can travel through harsh land and does make a long trek to find her son, to warn him that Captain Call has been hired to kill him.

And when she finds him, what happens? Joey calls her a stupid woman for riding all this way to tell him something he already knows.

She had ridden five days and crossed the freezing river for him, and all he had for her was a look that was as cold as the black waters of the Pecos. It was not a thing she could take patiently–not from her own child.

That scene reminded me very much of the way that July Johnson, in “Lonesome Dove,” endured hundreds of miles and much tragedy along the way to catch up with his run-away wife Elmira, and at the moment he arrives, she does not even bother to look at him.

In my review of “Lonesome Dove” I noted how often McMurtry presented characters who struggled with a kind of Quixotic devotion — meaning a literally physical quest made with devotion to someone who doesn’t return the love and never will. In “Streets of Laredo”, it’s the same thing, only now applied to motherhood — and to a woman whose love is far more clear-eyed than July Johnson’s.

But there is much more to this very rich novel. I haven’t even touched on Captain Call, who suffers so much in this novel that he and Maria come off almost as Christ-figures — but ambiguous ones, particularly Call. The Captain here is an old man working as a bounty hunter, still killing, still capable of brutalizing those who cross him. He does undergo a kind of painful redemption but it is only partial, and left open to interpretation when the novel closes.

I’ve made a few recent posts comparing “Lonesome Dove” to “Don Quixote.” McMurtry based the characters of Call and McCrae, in part, on Don Quijote and Sancho Panza. His aging cattlemen were a species of imperfect knight (though their flaws are different from those of Cervantes’ men). One reviewer of the “Streets of Laredo” miniseries even was reminded of DQ and Sancho in the pairing of Captain Call with the overweight and bumbling accountant from Brooklyn, Mr. Ned Brookshire, though I couldn’t quite see the resemblance.

“Streets of Laredo” is a violent novel in which genuine morality is hard to come by, so as I read it, I wondered if anyone in it could be characterized in the end as even an imperfect knight.

But in the end, several characters could be called genuine heroes/knights, for at least some of their actions:  Maria saves two of her children from Joey and leads a small exodus of whores from a miserable existence in Crow City; Lorena saves Call’s life and brings Pea Eye home; Call saves two children and kills their captor, Mox Mox, thus saving others from burning; Pea Eye saves countless more lives by mortally wounding Joey Garza, who had taken the lives of about 30 railway passengers over the course of his train robberies. 

But the cost of all these rescues, or their lateness in coming, is high.  Apart from the permanent crippling of Call, and the deaths of the villains themselves, many of the principle characters suffer cruel or avoidable fates:  Maria is killed by her own son; Brookshire is shot in cold blood by Joey; Deputy Plunkert is killed by bandits; the Deputy’s pregnant wife, Doobie, is raped while he is away and commits suicide; an old Indian woman named Naiche is trampled alive by Mox Mox’s gang; one of Maria’s husbands is maimed and killed by Joey.

On top of all this, there is the more ambiguous fate of Sheriff Doniphan, who had been responsible for the gang-rape of Maria; he is beaten almost to death by Call, and lives one more year as a disfigured pulp, before taking his own life.  A similarly ambiguous figure, Judge Roy Bean, known for wantonly hanging both the guilty and the innocent, is hanged by Joey in front of his own saloon; it’s one of the grisliest fates recounted in the novel, and McMurtry takes you right in to the gruesome inhumanity of hanging.

We could leave aside Call’s mission entirely, and there are further deaths in the novel having nothing to do with it or with the criminals he’s chasing:  a blacksmith in Crow Town is executed at point-blank range by John Wesley Hardin; Brookshire’s wife is lost to pneumonia back East; Clara Allen is trampled by one of her own mares near the very end of the novel.  Poor Newt Dobbs and July Johnson had died long before the events of the novel even begin, but their deaths are reported in its first few pages.  Also reported in its pages is the burning of a little boy at the hands of Mox Mox, during Lorena’s captivity many years earlier.

This is a violent and sad book, more bleak than “Lonesome Dove,” but not ultimately a despairing or hopeless one. God does not appear explicitly or openly in its pages, but one early reviewer called it the “most deeply moral of” McMurtry’s novels, and goodness is considered all over its pages, especially in its absence.

There is one thing McMurtry has done in the novel particularly, which could never be adapted for a movie, but which moves me deeply. Three times in the novel we see killers reduced in death to skin and bones, or to nothing but a sick and helpless body in near-death. And the person looking ceases to see the killer, but only sees what’s left of the flesh, pitiful and helpless. And they take pity, and help.

Goodnight comes upon the scraps that are left of Mox Mox, the manburner, and decides to bury him. “The meanness was gone now, and just bones and flesh remained”.

When Joey Garza dies and is laid next to his dying mother, she says, “He’s my good boy again”; she asks others in the room to give him good clothes and “make him nice”, and when they refuse, she does it herself.

Earlier, when Captain Call had been brought to Maria’s doorstep nearly dead, she had taken him in despite a temptation to kill him:

Maria looked briefly at the man tied to the black horse. He was an old man, and so wounded that he was only just barely alive. Though he bore the name of the man who had killed her father and her brother, Maria knew he was no longer that man, the one she had wanted to kill. She had wanted to kill him in his power because he had used his power wrongly. She wanted him to know that he could not simply kill people, good people, and be excused.

But the man who had wielded the power and done the killing was not the old, sick man on the black horse. To stab him now would be pointless — for she would not be stabbing the Captain Call she had hated for so long, but only the clothes and the fleshly wrappings of that man. She began to untie the knots that held him to the horse. The knots were slick with his blood.

I’ll leave for another post something that I found equal to this, in the original “Lonesome Dove”.

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