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On Reading Lonesome Dove

Jessica Rapisarda

“Nobody run off with her,” Roscoe said. “She just run off with herself, I guess.”
– Lonesome Dove
The wheezy refrigerator in my 350-square-foot apartment offered up only an old, opened bottle
of white wine. Like a backwards miracle, the wine stunk of vinegar. It had been weeks since I’d
last indulged in a glass, and I had been crippled afterward. I knew I would be. That’s how it went
in those days: a creeping depression that led to desperation that led to pain. Any drink, even one
drink, put me in bed for a full day. Or on the bathroom floor. Or in the ER.
But it was a bad night, and I wanted booze.
In the 6 months since I had called off my wedding, finished graduate school, been diagnosed
with a chronic illness, and slumped home to Baltimore, I had devoted myself fully to oblivion.
When my mind turned to the ash heap of my 8-year-long relationship, I flipped on my miniature
TV. So You Think You Can Dance regularly lit up my bedroom. When memories of grad school
crept up, of novels and bustling classrooms and the long afternoons spent with a writing pad in
my lap, I scrolled through MySpace. “Who commented on my selfie today?” I wondered. When
another migraine flared, I downed a hydrocodone. I just went away.
At 30, I was broke, sick, unattached, and equipped with a terminal degree in poetry. I’d picked
up a technical editing gig, but the work was dry, the people serious. I wanted wine, a damn beer,
but because of my trigger-happy migraines, I sucked down coffee instead. The coffee didn’t blot
out the world the way beer could. Rather, coffee, consumed in large quantities, gave the world a
hazy sheen, as though I were inside of a speeding car, watching my life fly by outside the
passenger window.
A visiting friend declined my offer of the vinegar wine. So it was over a ubiquitous mug, as I
slouched at my kitchen table, when said friend piped up, “Hey, I almost forgot to give this to
you!” He dug around in a knapsack and produced a dictionary-sized book. He slid the behemoth
across the table. “What’s this?” I asked, turning the book over in my hands. “It’s Lonesome
Dove. You’ve gotta read it.” I didn’t read Westerns. At that time, I didn’t read anything (except
for MySpace comments). “I don’t read Westerns,” I explained, sulkily pushing the book back in
his direction. “Just read the book, asshole. It’s good.” I doubted it.
But my kitchen table was small—it could barely seat two—and when I sat down to my morning
cup the next day, Lonesome Dove was still taking up considerable space in my breakfast nook-
come-brooding corner. Rain patted against the windows. The bathroom sink was, again,
mysteriously without hot water. I took a glug of coffee, exhaled self-pitifully, and opened the
book:

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When Augustus came out on the porch the blue pigs were eating a rattlesnake —
not a very big one. It had probably just been crawling around looking for shade
when it ran into the pigs. They were having a fine tug-of-war with it, and its rattling
days were over. The sow had it by the neck, and the shoat had the tail.

“You pigs git,” Augustus said, kicking the shoat. “Head on down to the creek if you
want to eat that snake.” It was the porch he begrudged them, not the snake. Pigs on
the porch just made things hotter, and things were already hot enough. He stepped
down into the dusty yard and walked around to the springhouse to get his jug. The
sun was still high, sulled in the sky like a mule, but Augustus had a keen eye for
sun, and to his eye the long light from the west had taken on an encouraging slant.

In the time it took me to read two paragraphs, I fell in love with Larry McMurtry’s dusty border
town. “Sulled like a mule” – for hours, I played that phrase in my head like a chord of music.
There was something about the consonance, the staccato rhythm, the pang of self-recognition.
But the music was sweet, a balm. Indeed, it had “an encouraging slant.”
My ritual cup of coffee frequently went cold as I followed Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call
on their cattle drive from Texas to Montana. I often think of my devotion to Gus and Call as my
first post-runaway-bride relationship. Sure, Call is stubborn and laconic (a typical cowboy, that
one), but he’s also intelligent and steely. Gus, my Gus, he drinks and fights and whores and talks,
talks, talks. Years after I first cracked the spine on McMurtry’s novel, when I was newly
pregnant with my son, I carried out a months-long campaign to name the kid “Augustus.” But
my husband, a whiskey drinker and shit talker, found the moniker too old-fashioned.
Through Lonesome Dove, I rediscovered the joy of headlong, sure-footed reading. In graduate
school, post-modernism had been all the rage. There was nary a plot arc to be found. I read
novels within novels. I read novels with footnotes to the footnotes. I read novels so fragmented
that they seemed less like novels than like plates of deconstructed lasagna. Post-modernism was,
for me, like a blindness. I felt my way through each work. Other senses might have been
heightened, but I was never sure of my step. Lonesome Dove, by comparison, was flushed with
light. Unlike the literary ouroboros of Nabokov’s Pale Fire or Robbe-Grillet’s The Erasers,
Lonesome Dove is a story told straight.
Though everything else in my life had veered horribly off course, for 843 pages, Lonesome Dove
carried me forward. The men of the Hat Creek Cattle Company, a few prostitutes, hundreds of
beeves, and two pigs crossed the nation, from south to north. People ate, people went hungry,
people were sometimes cold and sometimes hot, people felt fear or awe, people fell in love,
people broke hearts, and people died. It made sense. Even when my body was stiff with agony,
my head throbbing, my gut roiling, I read. I’d wrap an ice pack around my skull and squint at the
pages, reading the words aloud to myself like a lullaby or psalm. My body was a post-modernist
nightmare, a dark, ever-changing landscape. McMurtry’s story was a well-lit path.

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When I came to the last page of Lonesome Dove, to the final heart-rending line (“They say he
missed that whore.”), I sat in my breakfast nook-come-brooding corner and wept. A great
cleansing cry, a gully-busting downpour. Though I’d like to say that, afterward, I rode off into
the sunset, the truth is that I made a fresh pot of coffee in my galley kitchen. In fact, the sun was
just on the rise as I said my goodbyes to graduate school, to a mid-summer wedding, and to
mythical Texas.

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