I almost skipped reading “Comanche Moon” because of some critical reviews – and it does have a lot of flaws, which I’ll get into. In the end I decided to read it because it brings back Famous Shoes, the Kickapoo tracker who was practically the best single thing about “Streets of Laredo.” And there is some good stuff about Famous Shoes in “Comanche Moon,” but the best stuff actually relates to Buffalo Hump.
But first, the flaws.
There are a lot of “old lustful women” — Inez Scull, Therese Wanz, Xitla — and it’s a kind of recurring theme of the book, though given to us with a wink. We’re told that one of the older wives of the aging Comanche chief Buffalo Hump holds his attention not with sex, not with food, but by telling him stories of “old lustful women” who were “always trying to get young boys to couple with them.” And “many of her stories were about things that happened to humans while they were coupling–such stories seldom failed to amuse him.”
Well, that makes all of us. These tales hold our attention very well. Inez’s escapades are entertaining, and they’re arguably unique in the “Lonesome Dove” corpus. But it’s inferior stuff compared to what you got in earlier novels in this series. It doesn’t get the bottom-barrel treatment because it’s still McMurtry, who can put a unique flavor or twist on virtually anything. And Xitla’s story in particular is not mere sex (it doesn’t end in sex at all). But this is entertainment more than nourishment, compared to the other books.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for Buffalo Hump’s view of the matter. And may God help me if I have a problem with a novel merely for being entertaining. But I did want more.
Clara Allen and Gus McCrae are in this prequel but they simply are not as interesting as they would be later. As Gus says in “Dove”: “the older the violin the sweeter the music.”
Captain Scull is a legit interesting character. I don’t even care that he almost disappears in the last third of the novel. His mind is so fertile and resilient that one almost imagines he can escape the worst of captivity and torture without despairing. Almost.
There are too many callbacks to “Lonesome Dove”. “Comanche Moon” gives us an extended visit to the town of Lonesome Dove as it’s being built, but there’s no reason to go there, no reason for the scenes there; this feels purely like fan service.
The timing of Ahumado’s injury, which is critical to the plot, is too convenient.
In “Lonesome Dove” it’s stated that Maggie had died in the town of Lonesome Dove, but here she dies while she and everyone else is still living in Austin.
In “Lonesome Dove” it’s said that no one missed Therese Wanz after her death, but here she’s made into a charmer and a beauty.
In “Lonesome Dove” Call’s relationship with Maggie had been described as something brief, a real one-time exception in the Captain’s otherwise solitary life. In “Comanche Moon,” he knows Maggie for years, and even lives with her for a time.
This is a problem with almost all prequels. Story continuity takes a beating.
Now, the middling stuff.
There are callbacks in “Comanche Moon” to “Dead Man’s Walk.” After the death of his wife Nellie, Gus takes off unexpectedly and visits the site of his first encounter with Buffalo Hump, recounted at the start of “DMW”. As Gus goes through his memories, recalling one old friend after another, it almost feels like McMurtry is saying goodbye to his characters.
But this sequence does not seem as contrived as the visit to Lonesome Dove. It makes sense that Gus would go to reflect at a significant place from his past, and this fits. I was a little surprised that he didn’t go to Clara’s orchard, but I’m glad he didn’t; there’s more to Gus than Clara.
Gus comes back from his trip somewhat changed. He’d gone off to mourn his wife, and to think about why some people die and others don’t. We see him afterwards teasing others with purpose, like the old Gus did expertly, and generally beginning to take life like an old salt. And on this trip to the old DMW battleground, for the first time we hear of him reading “the scriptures” regularly in the morning.
So McMurtry’s trip to the old DMW battleground starts out a little like mere fan-service but we do get some important character development in Gus.
Now, the really good stuff.
Buffalo Hump is a changed person in this book, older, wiser, not the frightening force of nature we saw in “Dead Man’s Walk.”
In the last-third of this novel, set in the 1860s, things have changed, and the entire Comanche way of life is dying. The whites have systematically killed the buffalo, aiming to starve the people into submission. The people are now in fact going hungry and, one band after another, agreeing to live on reservations. Buffalo Hump, after barely surviving cholera, goes off to die alone.
This part of the book is filled with Native Americans reflecting both on their origins, as remembered in their myths, and on what their fate will be, as they see in their recent history and their present day.
The death of Buffalo Hump is violent and grotesque but at the same time solemn, and given respectful treatment. Even the death of Gus in “Lonesome Dove” had not received so much attention and reflection from the author.
The suicide of Three Birds is unique, because it feels almost like a victory. It’s the only suicide I’ve read about, fictional or not, that has struck me that way. Three Birds’ death in itself is tragic. But McMurtry puts him in an exceedingly rare, fictional situation: he’s facing a band of uniquely sadistic outlaws who are certain to take his physical life and who want to physically torture him for as long as they can. He robs them of that by stepping off the cliff’s edge.
Bill Coleman’s suicide, however, seems all too real, and very much like the suicides we find too often in real life. His wife has been raped (by Comanches), and he can’t live with what’s happened to her: can’t see her still as his wife. In truth, the marriage could continue; she could still be his wife; but he can’t see how, or won’t see, and takes his own life without need.
It’s gut-wrenching, not only because Bill Coleman is such a likeable character whom you hate to see die, but maybe also because it feels common and real.
The main theme of the book may in fact be suicide, or more broadly, the whole question of how long a person holds onto life, and when and how to exit it if one has a choice.
Famous Shoes judges that it’s a “fine way to leave life,” when he comes across Idahi, the Comanche warrior who, having been exiled from his tribe, and now mourning the loss of old traditions among such Comanche outlaws as Blue Duck, decides to go off to die alone, in prayer, chanting his death song, singing about his life.
Famous Shoes has the protection of Buffalo Hump because he had once helped Buffalo Hump’s grandmother to die and buried her.
Gus, repeatedly struggling to make sense of Bill Coleman’s suicide, decides that his former captain, Inish Scull, held onto life better than almost any man he’d ever known.
We know that old Gus will choose not to live any longer, when faced with the prospect of losing both legs, as a middle-aged man in “Lonesome Dove.”
We know also that Call will hang onto life as an even older man in “Streets of Laredo,” when his leg needs to be amputated and he submits to the procedure, even pushing Lorena to do it and instructing her.
Suicide has really been a running theme in all of the “Lonesome Dove” series, though in “Comanche Moon” it comes to the forefront.
Of all the voluntary deaths in “Comanche Moon,” the ones that seem best described as “suicides” are Bill Coleman’s and that of Three Birds. They were both young men.
Some of the other deaths are grayer (no pun intended). Buffalo Hump is the oldest of all these characters who choose to die; he has seen little on the horizon left for him to do; little that he can do, for himself or for his people. He decides to leave on his own terms, in a ring of sacred black stones. Blue Duck cheats him of this by killing his own father, as he had long wished to do. But Blue Duck cheats him of very little, in the end. Buffalo Hump still dies honorably, in the last struggle in the ring of stones. And Blue Duck has merely killed a man who had already decided to die and who was hours away from death. It’s Blue Duck who’s been denied the kind of “victory” that he’d wanted.
Gus and Call come across Buffalo Hump’s body and show him tremendous respect, lingering there while in the middle of an active pursuit, to remember the warrior who had frustrated and terrorized them for decades and had long ago earned their undying respect.
This is a mixed book, full of significant flaws, but its last-third is some of the best stuff in the “Lonesome Dove” novels.
Now, the 2008 movie.
Val Kilmer is a pleasure to watch in all his scenes. He goes through a number of interesting costume changes and looks like Mark Twain in his final appearances. He’s just too fat, in his captivity scenes.
Steve Zahn does an uncanny job mimicking Robert Duvall’s ticks and mannerisms, especially in the face. Normally I’m not a fan of this kind of slavish imitation – Jonny Lee Miller gives a great, original interpretation of Call, only dimly recalling Tommy Lee Jones’ speech and manner – but Zahn does this so successfully that it wins you over. By the end you really think this is the young Gus. He’s just too short.
A few scenes capture the spirit of the original “Lonesome Dove” miniseries for me: Gus’ speech at Long Bill’s burial; his picnic with Clara; his reflections while sitting on the rock at the old battlefield.
Buffalo Hump’s raid on Austin, led by Wes Studi, is well done, a real highlight.
Jake Spoon still looks like a teenager when he leaves; he is nothing like what we see in the portrait of the three Rangers hanging in the San Antonio bar, in which Gus whacks the surly bartender. Granted, I’m thinking of the portrait as seen in the movie; I believe that in the book the portrait is described differently.