Comanche Moon
By Larry McMurtry
Simon & Schuster; 752 pages; $28.50

With his Pulitzer Prize-winning, 1985 novel "Lonesome Dove," Larry McMurtry introduced to readers Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call, retired Texas Rangers seeking a final adventure by driving a herd of cattle to Montana.

In 1995, a prequel called "Dead Man's Walk" presented McCrae and Call as greenhorns barely out of their teens. With his latest, "Comanche Moon," McMurtry attempts to unite the disparate ends of their tale, chronicling the rangers' exploits during the prime of their adult lives.

The novel opens at a measured pace, with McCrae and Call on a mission under the command of Inish Scull, a Harvard-educated adventurer turned Texas Ranger. They are on the trail of Kicking Wolf, perhaps the greatest Comanche horse thief. After Kicking Wolf steals Scull's prized steed almost literally out from under his nose, Scull rashly decides to recapture the beast on his own. He promotes both Call and McCrae to Captain, then orders them to return to Austin without him.

The "Lonesome Dove" saga, like so much of McMurtry's fiction, simultaneously celebrates and debunks the Myth of the Old West. The grand, sweeping gestures intended to influence history almost never succeed. In "Comanche Moon," Scull's hubris lands him in mortal danger. Kicking Wolf's great act of thievery ends only in humiliation.

It is left up to rough, unprentious men like Call and McCraw to do the work that really matters. Once back in Austin, they are ordered by the Governor to fetch Scull. As Call and McCrae attempt to rescue their commanding officer, their paths cross those of Buffalo Hump, one of the most feared Comanche warriors, and Blue Duck, his tempestuous, half-breed son.

As the title suggests, much of this book is focused on Kicking Wolf, Buffalo Hump and Blue Duck. That autumnal "Comanche moon," once a signal for brave deeds and terrible fighting, is on the wane. In the novel's final third, set after the Civil War, McMurtry demonstrates how Call's and McCrae's once implacable foes are worn down by time and betrayal. He writes, "Thinking about the buffalo--how many there had once been; not a one remaining on the comancheria--Kicking Wolf grew so heavy with sadness that he could not speak. He had never thought that such abundance could pass, yet it had. He thought that it would have been better to have fallen in battle than to have lived to see such greatness pass and go."

The stuff of legend can still be found in McMurtry's Texas, but it lies primarily in small acts of personal courage, in standing up for a friend or grieving for a loved one.

After his second wife dies, McCrae also sets off into the desert alone, until a Kickapoo scout catches up with him. McMurtry writes, "It seemed to Famous Shoes that Captain McCrae was wanting to know the answer to questions that had no answer. Though it was sometimes possible to say why a particular woman died, it was not possible to say why one man's wives died while another man's lived. Such things were mysteries -- no man could understand them, any more than a man could understand the rain and the wind." It is exactly those mysteries that give McMurtry's version of the Old West its power and appeal.

"Comanche Moon" has its considerable pleasures, especially the way it re-introduces well-loved characters: Call's unacknowledged son Newt; Deets, the gentle ex-slave; handsome, irresponsible Jake Spoon; and slow but dependable Pea Eye Parker. McMurtry also gives Clara Forsyth and Maggie Tilton, the women who capture the hearts of McCrae and Call, a welcome chance to stand at center stage for a few chapters.

On the whole, however, the novel suffers from its unwieldy length and off-kilter pacing, almost matching "Lonesome Dove" in heft but falling short in terms of narrative sweep. It would certainly benefit from a few judicious cuts. McMurtry has a habit of running gags into the ground. Here, for example, the exploits of Captain Scull's libidinous spouse grow old after a few hundred pages.

Most of all, "Comanche Moon" may leave readers with the nagging wish that they could start fresh and read the installments of this epic in order of internal chronology, rather than by publication date. McMurtry's saga stands as a considerable achievement of popular storytelling, starting strong, sagging slightly in the middle, but arriving at a resounding climax and denouement. To begin with "Dead Man's Walk" and finish with "Lonesome Dove" will be a singular treat for new readers.

(c) 1997 by Michael Berry

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