Theology and morality in Laredo

Maria didn’t believe in hell. If there was a hell it came to you in life.

“Streets of Laredo,” chapter 8

Streets of Laredo”, the sequel to “Lonesome Dove,” is so filled with cruelty and death that paradoxically, it doesn’t feel ultra-realistic; it feels theological and moral – and the environment feels otherworldly.  Larry McMurtry once said that with “Lonesome Dove,” he had thought to create a “poor man’s Inferno”, but “Laredo” is where he actually succeeds in mounting a journey through hell.

It seemed to Brookshire that they were traveling in circles.  Every curve took them farther from civilization and produced another killer.

Circles of hell indeed.

Hell is constantly invoked.  Sometimes it’s alluded to literally:  the villagers of Crow Town think that the massive pig in their midst visits hell through an underground passage; “Judge” Roy Bean speculates that “perdition” will come to get him in the form of disease; Jimmy Cumsa tells Mox Mox that hellfire will warm him in death.  But hell in this novel is just the world in which the characters live and move.  Mox Mox is obviously a fire-loving demon in this environment, though thankfully the parallel is not pressed literally, because in the story he is still literally a man, whom other characters think will burn in hellfire as punishment for his acts in this world.  People don’t think of him as a demon inflicting hellfire upon human sinners – but he is unmistakably a demon in the inferno that McMurtry is painting here.

In this environment, where goodness is rare and dried up, it’s no wonder Lorena finds falseness in the hymns that are sung by the whore at Doobie’s funeral.  After listening to “Amazing Grace,” “Rock of Ages,” “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”, and “There’s a Home Beyond the River,” Lorena reflects: 

The only thing that was true in the four hymns the girl had sung was the music itself, Lorena thought. Neither the whore nor the dead woman over whose grave she’d sung had received any grace at all, to draw upon; nor did they have any rock to stand on; nor any circle to shelter or protect them. As to the home beyond the river, Lorena didn’t know.  She just wanted to find her husband and bring her children back from Nebraska.

We have mostly demons in this world, but one person is thinking of angels, and that is Famous Shoes.  He hears from Judge Roy Bean that the Bible is about God and his angels, who are men with wings – and Famous Shoes compares this with the eagles that he’s always thinking about.  He thinks about how humans might fly and who they might have to find in order to do so; he speculates about the edge of the world, and even tries to find it; he searches for the spirit of his grandfather; he wants to learn what words are, how they compare to tracks, and where they lead; and he asks questions about what can change the future.  He’s not a perfect person, and he’s specifically said to be greedy.  But his reflections soar higher than anyone else’s in the book.

In the movie of “Streets of Laredo,” co-written by McMurtry, Famous Shoes tells us what happened to the spirits of his children after they were killed by the Comanche. 

Pea Eye Parker:  Be a curse, wouldn’t it? [To have] a child go bad on you.  How ‘bout you, how are your children? 

Famous Shoes:  They were good children.  Comanche killed all of them.  I came back to the Brazos to be near their spirits, and the spirit of their grandfather.  But I didn’t find his spirit.

Pea Eye Parker:  What about your children, did you find their spirits?

Famous Shoes:  No, they were too young.  Their spirits were too light.  They had blown away to another part of the world.

In the very next scene, we see Lorena Parker quietly sending her young children off to distant Nebraska, where they can escape the danger she is about to walk back into.

Haunting and wonderful.

Sissy Spacek as Lorena Parker

Sam Shepard as Pea Eye Parker, and Wes Studi as Famous Shoes

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