Book Review: Dead Man's Walk

Posted on Aug 10, 2008
The book is a highly enjoyable adventure story set in the old west. During two separate "missions" the rangers set out across the plains toward New Mexico, first to secure a route to El Paso, then later to attempt to take over Santa Fe. During both missions the leadership lacks adequate preparation and, following encounters with hostile natives, deadly animals and the inhospitable nature of the landscape, both missions fail miserably. It is only by the skill of some of the more experienced rangers (and a lot of luck) that any of the troop manages to survive.

In many novels the author chooses a single main character, but in "Dead Man's Walk" the position of protagonist is instead shared by Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call. The characters are opposite in most ways, but share a similar lust for adventure and "Texan" values. What pay Gus doesn't spend on whores and whiskey, he loses at cards. On the other hand, Call saves for a better rifle and other practical rangering gear. Though these differing priorities are often a source of conflict between the characters, they actually seem to balance each other out in the end, making the sense of comradery between them more profound and true to life.

Gus and Call both grow considerably during the novel, which I suspect is it's primary purpose in the overall saga. Call carefully notes the weaknesses of the leaders of each of the mission, at times lamenting how far superior Indian tactics are. He is constantly trying to learn the skills of more experienced rangers and is also carefully observing what the Indians do differently. While Gus has clearly gained some experience as well, the main growth in his character seems to be his shift in interest from whores to Clara Forsyth, a shop keeper's daughter he meets in Austin. I will enjoy seeing how the characters progress through the rest of the series.

McMurty's style of writing is easy to read and very engaging. Narrative is balanced masterfully with dialogue, saving the reader from cumbersome, lengthy paragraphs of setting description or pages of filler-dialogue. One way he achieves this is to have a character say something about the setting, meaning that in one sentence he builds characters as well as adding detail to the setting.

My one complaint is that the book did seem to rush to an ending. Gus and Call are convinced that Buffalo Hump will return for another attempt after being fooled by Lady Carey's giant snake and Italian opera, but mere pages later the book ends suddenly. Even a paragraph mentioning that they had kept close guard during the rest of the trip and Buffalo Hump did not return would have left me feeling more fulfilled. Perhaps McMurtry meant to leave me feeling unfulfilled so that I would progress to the next book, but such cruel tactics were not necessary as I was long before convinced to read onward in the series!

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Mike at Chance Cove, NL - photo by Angelina Friskney,