Death is a bad career move, but not always fatal

November 16, 1995|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE De GRACE -- ''Life's but a knife edge,'' observes the cattle baron Charles Goodnight near the end of Larry McMurtry's ''Streets of Laredo.'' ''Sooner of later, people slip and get cut.''

They sure-enough do, in ordinary life as well as in cowboy novels like Mr. McMurtry's. But in ordinary life in the Clintonian era, such slips are invariably considered to be violations of certain vague rights, and thus provide prime opportunities for plaintiffs' lawyers to enrich themselves in the name of justice.

One of the fundamental themes of Western fiction, by contrast, is the assumption that life's a wild horse and the best anyone can hope for is the chance to ride it a while before it throws them to the ground. Neurotically risk-averse though modern American society may be, that idea still seems to have considerable atavistic appeal. Good Westerns still sell, and Larry McMurtry has become rich and famous.

It was just 10 years ago that he published ''Lonesome Dove,'' a wonderfully readable tale of two old Texas Rangers pushing a herd of cattle, mostly stolen, from the Rio Grande to Montana. They fought Indians, hanged a villain or two and consorted with ** pretty ladies.

The book was a best-seller, and so of course it became a television mini-series. Robert Duvall played Capt. Augustus McCrae, Tommy Lee Jones Capt. Woodrow Call. The series wasn't as good as the book, but it didn't fall far short. It was well acted, filmed in magnificent country, and reasonably faithful to Mr. McMurtry's story. The ratings were excellent and the critics generally kind.

Inevitably, along came a sequel, ''Streets of Laredo,'' which was in turn made into another mini-series, shown this past week on CBS. More is on the way. This may or may not be good news for admirers of ''Lonesome Dove,'' which isn't likely to be improved upon.

''Nothing recedes like success,'' said Walter Winchell, who had reason to know. That seems to be especially true in the entertainment business, which never tires of trying to take a work of literature and turn it into a perpetual-motion cash machine, even though such efforts usually fail commercially and almost always fail artistically.

Mr. McMurtry crippled ''Streets of Laredo'' long before he set out to write it, back when he killed off Gus McCrae in ''Lonesome Dove.'' Loquacious, philosophical Gus was his best character; Woodrow Call, taciturn and self-contained in the best Western tradition, can't effectively carry the sequel without him.

Readers of ''Streets of Laredo'' learn in the first few pages that the Montana ranch venture begun in ''Lonesome Dove'' has failed; that the half-acknowledged son who had made the grim Call seem halfway human has died; and that Call has been spending his declining years as a bounty hunter. The novel is an account of his last manhunt.

Conventional violence

Naturally, it's exciting and violent, but without the electricity between Call and McCrae it's also oddly conventional. In the film version, Tommy Lee Jones as Call has been replaced by James Garner, but with the hat and the beard it doesn't seem to make much difference.

The villain -- a murderous Mexican youth, but blond and blue-eyed in the film to minimize ethnic affront -- is tracked down and killed. Call, like his pal Gus years before, has a leg amputated. His career as a killer is over. At the close he lives in a shack, tended by a blind girl. Ho hum. From a literary perspective, it would obviously have been better to have left ''Lonesome Dove'' alone.

But market-driven creativity can be considerable, and neither Mr. McMurtry nor Hollywood is willing to let the two ''Lonesome Dove'' heroes go if it can be avoided. So a novel about their adventures in earlier days, a ''prequel,'' was published this fall. It's said to be on its way to our television sets soon, presumably with yet another set of actors playing Gus and Call.

In the prequel, called ''Dead Man's Walk,'' the two crusty characters we got to know in ''Lonesome Dove'' are a pair of teen-agers just recruited by the Texas Rangers. They endure violence and hardship, but of course their survival of their excellent adventure is guaranteed, which somewhat reduces the dramatic tension.

Presumably, if this prequel succeeds commercially, there will be at least one more; there's enough time between the end of ''Dead Man's Walk'' and the beginning of ''Lonesome Dove'' to squeeze in a few more adventures. As Mr. Goodnight remarked, life's but a knife edge. But in the entertainment world, if you're a popular fictional hero, no matter how often you slip off that edge there will be someone trying to put you back on your perch again. It's pretty hard to market you once you're dead.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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