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How the West Was Done : STREETS OF LAREDO, By Larry McMurtry (Simon & Schuster: $25; 589 pp.)

August 08, 1993|Mark Horowitz | Horowitz has contributed to the New Yorker, the Washington Post and the New York Times

Larry McMurtry's first nine novels were contemporary tales that debunked the persistent and often destructive myth of the Old West. Then along came "Lonesome Dove," full of the very romance and legend he seemed to abhor, and it turned out to be his masterpiece. And even though McMurtry's best characters were usually women--Aurora Greenway, Patsy Carpenter, Jill Peel all come to mind--his greatest creation is Gus McCrae, the grizzled Texas Ranger who dies unforgettably at the end of "Lonesome Dove."

After that book, perhaps feeling guilty over his apparent betrayal of the modern and the feminine, McMurtry came right back and published two short novels, "Anything for Billy" and "Buffalo Girls," that parody our heroic Western past, plus three more set in modern Texas, all full of strong women.

Now comes the latest course correction, the official sequel to "Lonesome Dove." Few recent novels could survive comparison to "Lonesome Dove," and sure enough, "Streets of Laredo" is neither as big nor as great, but it is still one of McMurtry's most powerful and moving achievements.

The time is the early 1890s. It's been 20 years since Gus McCrae and his old friend Captain Woodrow Call said goodby to Texas and headed north to Montana with a herd of cattle. Such startling forward leaps in time are typical of McMurtry's other sequels; two decades also separate the action of "Texasville" from "The Last Picture Show," of "The Evening Star" from "Terms of Endearment," and of "Some Can Whistle" from "All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers." But "Streets of Laredo" is less a sequel than an anti-sequel. Nothing has turned out as anyone hoped. A few bad Montana winters destroyed Call's dream of a ranching empire. Crueler still, Call's son, Newt, the logical hero for the sequel, was killed years ago by a horse given to him by his father.

Call and a few other survivors of the Hat Creek Cattle Co. are back in Texas, right where they started.

The railroad czars of 1890 need a bounty hunter to track down and kill a particularly vicious train robber named Joey Garza. They hire the legendary ex-Texas Ranger, Captain Call, who lives alone in a small shack provided gratis by Charles Goodnight, a successful Texas rancher and one of the many real-life figures who commingle with McMurtry's fictional ones. The ensuing cross-country manhunt provides the novel's frame.

Gus McCrae knew when to leave the stage, dying before illness or old age slowed him down, but Call has lived long enough to finally overreach himself. He is 70 years old and failing, while his adversary, Joey Garza, is young and clever. To make matters worse, several other psychotic killers are loose, and Call takes it upon himself to clean up the whole mess. The result is a bloody quest along both sides of the Rio Grande, as the bandits make mincemeat of Call's poorly assembled posse.

Call is just too worn out to be the real hero of "Streets of Laredo." That task falls to Gus' former love, Lorena Wood. Twenty years after riding out of "Lonesome Dove," where she had been the most popular prostitute in town, Lori is also back in Texas, this time with five children, a farm and the unlikeliest husband: old Pea Eye, the shy, soft-spoken, ex-Ranger who served Gus and Call loyally through all their past adventures.

Lorena changed Pea Eye from a restless Ranger into a contented farmer who wants "to hold his wife in his arms, not bury corpses killed by outlaws." But a part of him will always belong to Captain Call. In the battle of "woman against man," as Lorena calls it, she has "her body, her spirit, her affection and passion, the children she and Pea shared, the life they shared on the farm that had cost them all her money and years of their energy. It was that against the old man with the gun, and the way of life that ought to have ended."

Call divides the history of the West into two parts, the "exploring part" and the "settling part." "Lonesome Dove" took place just as the exploring part ended. Twenty years later, he realizes, "the settling had happened," and Call has become "one of the old ones of the West" who were "just echoes of what had been."

Like the Flying Dutchman, Call is a wraith from the past, luring others to their doom. Lorena knows she "could change her husband's habits, and she had, but she couldn't change his history and it was in his history that the problem lay." When Call asks Pea to join him once more, Pea cannot refuse. "It would never be finished," Lorena realizes, speaking for all the families shattered by the lures of frontier dreams, "not while the Captain was alive, it wouldn't."

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