CowboySpirit.com – Larry McMurtry grew up among ranchers and cowboys, and his familiarity with this rural world makes his early novels set in and around Thalia, Texas, genuinely alive with rich detail and believable characters. He knows this world as it’s seen and understood by the people who live there, both young and old. Most revealingly (and colorfully) he knows how they really talk to each other and to themselves — not in the stereotypical ways often ascribed to country people.
You read “Leaving Cheyenne” slowly (the reference is to an old cowboy ballad, not the town in Wyoming), savoring the re-creation of real times and places, even when the story itself may move with no great urgency. The insights into characters and the observance of their behavior make them come alive on the page, and you simply enjoy the portrayals of them, their values, beliefs, and experiences.
Part I of this novel is told from the point of view of Gideon, a rancher’s son, about 20 years old, around the year 1920. There is his friend Johnny, from a neighboring ranch, and the two of them compete for the affection of Molly, a barefoot, independent-minded girl who willfully and unwisely marries another boy, an oilfield roustabout.
In Part II, it is 20 years later, during WWII, and Molly, now widowed, remains friends with the middle-aged Gideon and Johnny, each of whom happens to have fathered one of her two sons. This part is told from her point of view. Gideon has married another woman (also unwisely) and has become a prosperous rancher, while Johnny works for him, content to be a happy-go-lucky cowboy. Molly lives alone, her sons off to war, and yearns for the company of each of her two old friends and lovers.
In Part III, it is again 20 years later, about 1960 (the novel was published in 1962), and the three characters are now much older. Told from the point of view of Johnny, this section is farcically comical. Meanwhile, Gideon is haunted with guilt for his infidelities with Molly, and Johnny, as he says, has never lost a night’s sleep feeling shame for anything he’s ever done.
Written in 20-year jumps, the novel gives a sense of how quickly life passes and how people remain the adolescents they once were even as they age. We see that choices made in haste cannot be undone and can leave a life-long legacy of regret. Yet there is also solace in affection, loyalty, and tenderness of heart. The novel celebrates the special quality of friendship among friends who have lived their whole lives together in the same small rural community. And over the years, there is the land — and working the land — to ground their rural lives with purpose.