Is Lonesome Dove the Great American Novel? A Pulitzer Prize Deep Dive

At the outset, Lonesome Dove feels like an unlikely epic in the western genre. When we meet former Texas Rangers Augustus “Gus” McCrae and Woodrow Call, they’ve settled into a comfortable existence in the town of Lonesome Dove along the border of Mexico. Their adventuring days are behind them–both because they’ve started getting up in years and because the violent threats they used to fight against as Rangers have long since cooled. These days they run the Hat Creek Cattle Company, an operation with a simple business plan: when a customer comes along, Call just eases their men across the border into Mexico to steal the necessary cattle. For the first section of this novel, Lonesome Dove feels like the impossible: a western story in which the adventure is already over.

Gus has rather taken to this lifestyle, allowing himself to grow lazy and spend his days talking–even if his knowledge on the current subject is short. When conversation lags or the spirit of the ruckus gets in him, Gus heads to Lonesome Dove’s only saloon for some more talk, some cards, or to visit Lonesome Dove’s only prostitute, Lorena Wood (sometimes all three in one night). But his main preoccupation is getting under the skin of Call, a mostly silent workaholic who is clearly a lot more restless about their adventuring days sliding into the past. Call spends his nights alone watching over the river that forms the border with Mexico, waiting for trouble that isn’t coming. He’s also taken on the difficult task of taming an irritable horse called The Hell Bitch for no apparent reason other than the challenge itself.

All that changes when a former Texas Ranger buddy of theirs, Jake Spoon, rides into Lonesome Dove. Jake has traveled up and down the country since his Ranger days, relying on his affability to get him by. Unfortunately for Jake, without strict guidance he has a tendency to get himself into trouble. He came to Lonesome Dove after fleeing Arkansas, where he accidentally shot and killed a dentist. Call and Gus know enough to be wary of Jake, but the rest of the town is quickly taken in by his charm–including Lorena, who allows herself to dream that Jake will be the man to get her to San Francisco, where she thinks her life would be easier.

Inexplicably, Call himself gets taken in once Jake starts talking about Montana. Jake describes it as rich land there for the taking now that (as he claims) the threat of the Natives is starting to (literally) die down. Somehow, Call gets it in his head to drive some cattle up to Montana to be the first to settle there, and he is not the kind of man to idly debate the merits of a decision–even when Gus, rightly, points out that there just doesn’t seem to be any sense in Call’s plan. Why would they leave the cozy life they had worked so hard to build for an uncertain future?

To Lonesome Dove‘s enormous credit, that question is the overarching point of the story, a sort of philosophical divide between Call and Gus that frames everything they do in the ensuing seven hundred-odd pages. They’re going just because the land is there, just because they want to be first, and just because they don’t want to be useless old men. Nevermind that the land doesn’t belong to them, they most certainly wouldn’t be the first to call it home at all, and there isn’t a thing they can do to turn back the tide of age. And so, in its second part Lonesome Dove launches into a more traditional western framework, openly acknowledging that Call is accepting a share of death and destruction along the passage north to Montana.

The trick is that McMurtry never turns his back on the solid foundation he gave the story, even as he unexpectedly fans out the narrative to include a passel of other characters whose paths will cross the Hat Creek Outfit along the way. I wasn’t sure I liked how the story expanded at first–it felt like unnecessary distractions from the core of the story and the way everyone keeps ending up in the same place can only be described as a series of plot contrivances–but over time it won me over. Being honest, it does feel that some of the characters are introduced to add some comic relief or a sense of danger when they inevitably meet a bad end, but McMurtry does such a great job of making them feel like real characters with full lives that they don’t feel like the throwaways they should by all rights.

Perhaps smartly, McMurtry also has the most traditionally (read: clichéd) western adventure piece happen relatively early in their drive, when Lorena is kidnapped by an old adversary of Gus and Call’s from their Ranger days. When Jake, who had left her to go gambling, refuses to do anything to save her, Gus rides off on his own to rescue her. For most novels–especially western ones–this would be the entire centerpiece of the story. Making it an early side story and something of a diversion allows McMurtry to subvert the reader’s expectations. It also allows him to explore weightier themes about the cost of violence in the old west.

Here, again, Gus and Call find themselves at odds. Call is a man who is never finished proving himself–who needs hard work and toughness to constantly define who he is. Perception is everything to him–even if all it means is him being able to believe himself a good man. It’s this very notion that prevents Call from being able to claim his son, Newt, who has been a member of the Hat Creek Outfit since his mother, a prostitute, died. To Call, Newt is a constant, living reminder that he was once weak. “It meant an admission he couldn’t make–an admission that he had failed someone. It had never happened in battle, such failure. Yet it had happened in a little room over a saloon, because of a small woman who couldn’t keep her hair fixed.” That Call should own up to this and give the boy his name (names are a wonderful recurring theme with Call) is a constant bone of contention between him and Gus.

Gus, on the other hand, has begun to question what all that fighting and violence was for, anyway. It’s fair to say that no character ever really gives much more than a passing thought to what they’ve done to the Natives or why they might be so angry at the white man, but there are moments when both Gus and Deets, Hat Creek’s best hand, acknowledge that maybe things would have been better if white people had stayed out of their land: “It was a mistake, coming into other people’s country. It only disturbed them and led to things like the dead boy. People wouldn’t understand, wouldn’t know that they were friendly.” This quote (a perhaps naive thought from Deets after his intentions were misunderstood), of course ignores the plain fact that many white men were rather deliberately unfriendly to the Natives, but it forms a clear line of thought running underneath the surface of Lonesome Dove–one that allows western enthusiasts to enjoy everything they want from the genre even as the novel subtly calls it all into question.

A particularly resonant moment from Gus comes when he is forced to confront the reality of how thinned out the buffalo have become since white men brought their ‘civilization’ into the west:

“Thus the sight of the road of bones stretching over the prairie was a shock. Maybe roads of bones were all that was left. The thought gave the very emptiness of the plains a different feel. With those millions of animals gone, and the Indians mostly gone in their wake, the great plains were truly empty, unpeopled and ungrazed. Soon the whites would come, of course, but what he was seeing was a moment between, not the plains as they had been, or as they would be, but a moment of true emptiness, with thousands of miles of grass resting unused, occupied only by remnants–of the buffalo, the Indians, the hunters.”

Page 434

It’s the glory of the old west we’re used to seeing, but this time it has a question mark attached. Call and Gus are undeniably hero archetypes, but the very novel they star in questions their motivations and the worth of what they are doing. It’s this balance that makes Lonesome Dove a masterpiece.

As he heads into the latter period of middle age, Gus finds himself pondering mistakes. Call spends his time trying to justify everything he’s done, but Gus allows his mind to wander freely, and most often it wanders toward Clara Allen, who just may have been the love of Gus’ life, even if simply because she’s the one who got away. The only reason Gus really agrees to the cattle drive is as an excuse to detour to Ogallala, Nebraska, where Clara has settled on a horse ranch with the dull man she left Gus for. Does she still think of him? Should he have fought for her? Will their old spark still be there?

This sounds like a standard romantic triangle plot device–especially when Lorena further complicates it by growing desperately attached to Gus after he saves her and gently nurses her back to health. McMurtry, however, manages to wring real emotion from the situation–particularly when Gus unexpectedly tears up visiting a place where he and Clara used to picnic along a river. He also smartly adds Clara to the unfurling narrative long before Gus and the Hat Creek Outfit make Nebraska, first because this eliminates the fourth member of this romantic square when we discover that Clara’s dull husband has been left in a vegetative state and is slowly dying thanks to a kick in the head from a mare, and also because it allows us to get to know and love Clara in all her blunt, practical glory. She is easily the best character in the book.

When the Hat Creek Outfit finally does make Nebraska, McMurtry plays with another strength of Lonesome Dove: the interplay between expectation and reality. Gus has allowed himself to idealize Clara in the years since she left him, and Clara (particularly since her husband became an invalid) has focused her memories on Gus’ better qualities, even as she remembers quite well why she made the decision to leave him behind. In reality, they’ve ended up leading very different lives and facing very different hardships over the years.

Another idealized reunion features in the subplot of Elmira, the unhappy wife of July Johnson, the Sheriff who has been sent to find Jake Spoon to bring him to justice for the accidental murder of that dentist in Arkansas–although not between Elmira and July. Instead, Elmira uses the opportunity of July going off to find Jake Spoon to run away to find her former lover, Dee Boot. This reunion, however, is short-lived as by the time she finds him, Dee Boot is scheduled to hang.

Outside of reunions, Gus, Call, and every cowboy on the cattle drive must face the difference between their expectation of the drive and what they will find in Montana and the often fatal realities of how hard the trip is. Gus and Call speculate that they will not all make it to Montana, and sure enough, this cattle drive is littered with gruesome demises. When they happen, it is usually sudden and shocking (which makes it all the more disappointing that the TV miniseries adaptation leans heavily on foreshadowing as a device). There’s a genuine sense that McMurtry is not above killing anyone off, which makes the dangerous moments feel all the more suspenseful.

Going back to Lorena’s kidnapping for a moment, I was fascinated that McMurtry seemed to have absolutely no interest in providing closure on that storyline for a large swath of the book: after Lorena is saved, Gus gets her back to the Hat Creek Outfit and no one chases down Blue Duck, the old adversary who had taken her and sold her to a violent gang of men who use her badly. A typical western would have been focused on the topic of revenge like a laser and would have made tracking down Blue Duck (and bringing him to justice) a main focus of the novel. While Lonesome Dove is very interested in the notion of forgiveness, it has less time for revenge.

I admit, I had deeply respected this choice of McMurtry’s. Novels, movies, and TV shows can be focused on literal resolutions to storylines: crime is committed, justice is served. But that isn’t the way life works. Sometimes the bad guy gets away and the good guys get on with their lives unless they happen to run into each other again.

You can imagine, then, that I was very disappointed that in the final fifty-odd pages of the book, Call takes a detour to witness the hanging of Blue Duck when he hears that he was finally caught. As brief as it is, this section feels tacked on–as if an editor sent a draft of the manuscript back to McMurtry with the note “you need to resolve what happens to Blue Duck,” and McMurtry grudgingly agreed. It’s the one element of all 858 pages of Lonesome Dove that felt off to me.

McMurtry’s writing is intricate and gorgeous while remaining, for the most part, curiously unmemorable. He is not a writer who is interested in trying to create quotes that could be stitched onto a pillow, which works in Lonesome Dove‘s favor. When I found myself alone in a room with this book, I tended to read it aloud. It works very well in that form, and I think that speaks to the charm of McMurtry’s writing: reading Lonesome Dove is like listening to a natural storyteller spin a yarn. You may not remember specific lines, but the story and its meaning will stay with you for many years to come.

Its willingness to tell the story of the old west (a quintessentially American story even as it defines a very narrow period in the nation’s history) while subtly calling that history into question makes it, for my money, perhaps the definitive Great American Novel. Other contenders like The Great Gatsby focus primarily on immigration, industrialization, corporate greed, and social mobility. Still others focus on the Civil War as a defining period. I side with Lonesome Dove for the way it examines America’s past and future while also telling a great story.

Does Lonesome Dove Have Problematic Depictions of Women and Minorities?

I mentioned earlier that not much time is spent debating the plight of the Natives in Lonesome Dove, which means they don’t really get a fair shake at the level of understanding other characters get. The only real character with a Native background is Blue Duck, who never really rises above the position of stock villain in a western–he is, without question, the least developed character with a major story arc in the entire novel. The question of Native rights or feelings is only ever glanced at from far outside, although it is there if you look for it. The only question is whether or not the majority of the audience for this book will look, or stop to question what they are reading long enough to care about the question anyway.

Mexicans are afforded even less scrutiny than the Natives, although there are two Mexican characters–both filling the role of cook for the Hat Creek Outfit.

Making out better than both Natives and Mexicans are Lonesome Dove‘s two black characters–one major and one minor. Frog Lip only appears briefly as a sharpshooter in the Suggs gang, which leads Jake Spoon fatally astray after he leaves the Hat Creek Outfit, but he makes quite an impression. Since he’s a man of few words, you don’t get to know Frog Lip well, but you do know that unlike the erratic Suggs boys, he’s sober and deadly at all times–and he’s a painfully good shot. All of which makes it all the more shocking when he is suddenly shot in a brawl and killed off by the ruthless Suggs boys.

In contrast, we get to know Josh Deets very well through the course of the novel. He’s eccentric (those quilted pants!) and softspoken, but it is repeatedly commented on that he is the best and most reliable cowboy the Hat Creek Outfit has. He gets the most important jobs and has earned the most trust from Call and Gus. When strangers denigrate him for being black, the Hat Creek boys stick up for him as a good human being and a model cowboy.

Frog Lip ultimately doesn’t amount to much more than a redshirt in this story, but if representation matters (and I think it does), it means something that two of the most capable men in the entire novel happen to be black.

On the one hand, the representation of Mexicans and Natives isn’t great, but on the other hand, this is probably pretty true to what characters at this time would have been thinking. America was fighting with both of these people to claim land that didn’t belong to us, so cowboys would be hard pressed to feel sympathy for them. I do think McMurtry managed to give Natives in particular some nuance, but in such subtle ways that I wouldn’t be at all surprised to hear that most readers miss that nuance completely.

As for women, well, that’s a bit more complicated. I was extremely nervous when I started reading Lonesome Dove because the only female character was a whore. Was that the best McMurtry was going to do for women? But as nervous as I was, I liked the character of Lorena. She’s a good person with a richly imagined past and dreams for her future. Through her interplay with Gus throughout the book, we get to see just how distrustful she is of men, who for the most part have done nothing but hurt or use her. And when Jake starts to do the same, she stands her ground. It’s the standing her ground in particular that makes me think this isn’t just a stereotypical prostitute in a western novel: she has agency and isn’t afraid to say no. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if the very fact that she’s a prostitute makes the novel’s approach to women problematic–especially since the major western arc with Blue Duck casts her as the damsel in distress.

It didn’t help that the next female character of substance we meet is Elmira, whose basic character description is “shitty wife and mother.” It takes a lot longer to get a handle on Elmira since she isn’t very forthcoming about her past, but McMurtry does ask us to stop for a moment to consider what her life was like to make her so depressed that she stopped caring about anything–and how desperation to care about anything led her to try to run back to Dee Boot–when July meets a prostitute who unexpectedly puts him in Elmira’s shoes for once.

Clara doesn’t enter the narrative until we’re about halfway through the book, and for me, she settled a lot of the debate because, as I said earlier, she is the best character in the book. She’s like a mix between Call and Gus: like Gus, she has a somewhat wicked sense of humor and cares deeply about the people around her; like Call, she’s hardworking, blunt, and practical. She’s a badass lady running a horse ranch on her own terms in the old west. What’s not to love about her?

So again, there’s a level at which you could read this and find most of the female representation shallow and one note, but there’s a lot going on under the surface if you look for it. And I think it should also be noted that the white men are mostly just as problematic: vain, lazy, cruel, ignorant, and more. At the end, I think it’s important to interrogate the representation, but I think McMurtry did a decent job–especially considering that this book was published in 1985.

Larry McMurtry’s Road to Lonesome Dove

Larry McMurtry grew up in Texas in the 1930s and 40s, when people who had experienced the Old West were still around to tell a young boy stories about cattle drives and ranching. He was fascinated by the stories and by the men who told them, and how deeply their lives had been impacted by their time on the range. As he grew older, McMurtry was also deeply interested in the mythmaking around the Old West and the legacy it had left, which would deeply inform his work as a writer.

Perhaps this fascination is best represented in McMurtry’s semi-autobiographical 1966 novel The Last Picture Show, which centers around teenagers coming of age in a Texas town that is dying both culturally and economically. The west, embodied by the character of Sam the Lion, is fading away forever.

McMurtry had already enjoyed a long, successful career by the time Lonesome Dove was published in 1985–one that straddled the line between the literary world and Hollywood. His first novel, 1961’s Horseman, Pass By, was adapted into the classic 1963 film Hud, starring Paul Newman and winning Academy Awards for Patricia Neal and Melvyn Douglas. The Last Picture Show was also adapted into a classic movie in 1971 (winning another two acting Oscars, this time for Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson). Then in 1983, his novel Terms of Endearment was brought to the screen as a blockbuster tearjerker that won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress for Shirley MacLaine.

The Last Picture Show‘s film adaptation directly led to the creation of Lonesome Dove because director Peter Bogdanovich wanted to work with McMurtry again, this time on a western movie. The script that McMurtry wrote was liked by the studio but got stuck in development hell for twelve years before McMurtry bought back the rights to develop it into a novel, which ultimately became Lonesome Dove.

McMurtry published a novel, The Desert Rose, the same year Terms of Endearment became a smash hit in movie theaters, but Lonesome Dove was his first book to be released after that success. Like The Last Picture Show, it reckons with the legacy of the west and interrogates mythic interpretations of the time, but unlike that previous novel, Lonesome Dove does this by inhabiting the framework of a western myth.

Lonesome Dove continued McMurtry’s crossover success with Hollywood when a landmark TV miniseries was made from it in 1989 with an all star cast. It was such a hit that a sequel, Return to Lonesome Dove, was commissioned and aired in 1993 even though McMurtry was not involved in the screenplay and indeed published his own sequel, Streets of Laredo, the same year.

Arguably, McMurtry’s career has quieted down a fair bit since then, but he is still popular and even won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay when he cowrote the script for Brokeback Mountain. Lonesome Dove has become widely regarded as a modern classic and cemented McMurtry’s reputation as a notable American writer.

Is Lonesome Dove any good?

In case you couldn’t tell from my review, yes–it absolutely is. It’s possible someone would find it overly long, but personally, I think the story is so well told that I honestly could have read more.

Does Lonesome Dove Hold Up?

The most troublesome critique would be the depiction of women and Native Americans, which I already discussed at length. I could see someone thinking it fails on those fronts, but I think it avoided disaster.

Even though it is firmly set in the past, I would argue that Lonesome Dove has a timeless feel to it. The moral dilemmas and existential questions faced by its characters are still relevant today and it doesn’t feel dated or old fashioned–not to me, at least.

Are There Adaptations or Sequels?

As mentioned earlier, Lonesome Dove became a smash hit as a TV miniseries in 1989 with Tommy Lee Jones as Call, Robert Duvall as Gus, Diane Lane as Lorena, Anjelica Huston as Clara, Danny Glover as Deets, and a then unknown Chris Cooper (future Academy Award winner for Adaptation) as July Johnson. I recently watched it and while it mostly does the book justice, I was disappointed that it tended to emphasize the story’s more melodramatic moments and keeps adding elements of foreshadowing–making the miniseries feel contrived and dated in parts, whereas the book never does.

McMurtry published a sequel called Streets of Laredo in 1993 and honestly, after looking at the plot description I’m just not interested. McMurtry seems to arbitrarily shake up where he left things off in order to have Call back on the road adventuring–and if he didn’t want to do a true sequel, he might as well have just written it as a standalone novel about new characters.

After that, McMurtry published two prequels about Call and Gus’ early adventures as Texas Rangers: 1995’s Dead Man’s Walk and 1997’s Comanche Moon. Again, having looked at the plot descriptions, I think I’ll pass. I liked it just fine knowing Gus and Call at the part of their life where we meet them in Lonesome Dove.

Is Lonesome Dove Readily Available?

Absolutely–not only is Lonesome Dove still in print, it can usually be found on the shelves in your local bookstores (along with one or two of Larry McMurtry’s other titles).

Snapshot: 1985

I know Lonesome Dove won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1986, but the way the Pulitzers work is that the prize is awarded for the previous year’s best. So the awards that were given in 1986 were actually to reward the best of 1985, which is why I’m focusing on that year to give you a sense of what was going on in the world then.

In bookstores, according to Publisher’s Weekly, the bestselling novel of the year was Jean M. Auel’s The Mammoth Hunters, followed by James Michener’s Texas (really, how angry do you think Michener was that Lonesome Dove stole his thunder at the Pulitzers?). The Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to French novelist and critic Claude Simon. Margaret Atwood’s classic The Handmaid’s Tale was published, as were Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridien, Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera (although the English translation wouldn’t arrive until 1988), and Jeanette Winterson’s classic lesbian coming-of-age novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. In children’s books, The Polar Express was published. And looking to the future, author Téa Obreht was born in what was then Yugoslavia.

In movies, Back to the Future was the highest-grossing movie in America for that year, while Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa went on the win Best Picture at the Academy Awards (which were held in 1986). Other new releases included The Color Purple, The Goonies, and Witness.

On TV, The Cosby Show had the highest ratings. The character of Elmo was introduced on Sesame Street, which also aired its 2,000th episode. Bobby Ewing was killed off on the season finale of Dallas (he would famously be revived when ratings flagged for the following season when his wife woke up to learn that his death and the entire events of the season that followed were a dream). Moonlighting began airing on ABC starring Cybill Shepherd (whose acting career was launched by a little movie called The Last Picture Show), while The Dukes of Hazzard ended its run on CBS.

In music, Live Aid concerts were broadcast around the world. George Michael topped the Billboard Hot 100 Singles with “Careless Whisper” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” was the bestselling album. Lionel Richie won Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards for Can’t Slow Down and would go on to win an Oscar for Best Original Song for the 1985 film White Nights, which featured his song “Say You, Say Me.” Also at the Grammy Awards, Cyndi Lauper was named Best New Artist and Tina Turner took home Record of the Year for “What’s Love Got to Do With It.”

And in the news, Ronald Reagan was sworn in for his second term as President of the United States and by the end of the year would be embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal. The wreck of the Titanic was discovered. The FDA approved a blood test for AIDS. The internet’s domain name system was created, although the general public wouldn’t see the importance of this for a while, and Steve Jobs resigned from Apple, the company he had co-founded and would later return to to revolutionize the tech industry.

What Was Lonesome Dove’s Competition for the Pulitzer?

The Pulitzer Board started releasing finalists along with the name of the winner in 1980, so we can say with certainty that the direct competition to Lonesome Dove consisted of finalists The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler and Continental Drift by Russell Banks. According to Heinz-Dietrich Fischer’s Chronicle of the Pulitzer Prizes for Fiction, the jurors for 1985 found Accidental Tourist to be “a novel of great merit” and lauded Tyler as an author who “has taken as her fictional territory that sprawling American landscape of the middle class.” Lonesome Dove, meanwhile, was regarded by them as “an American epic. It is surely one of the most nearly complete western novels ever written,” further noting that it “is a monumental work of action, vision, and irony.” But interestingly, the majority of the jury’s praise was saved for Continental Drift: “a visionary epic about innocence and evil, and it is extremely well written.” They further noted “We feel that this novel is truly distinguished, and we give it our very highest recommendation.”

Despite the jury’s endorsement of Continental Drift, the Pulitzer Board ultimately decided to go against their judgment (as they would again the following year) to give the prize to Lonesome Dove. How, then, did Lonesome Dove pull off an upset?

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the Pulitzer Prize for fiction has a specific mandate to award an American author for a work “preferably dealing with American life.” Right there in the summaries for the finalists, Lonesome Dove is described as “an American epic” while Continental Drift was not. Lonesome Dove is, perhaps, more in line with the prize’s mission statement (even though they have frequently blurred the lines on what constitutes “dealing with American life”). The Accidental Tourist is also specifically tied to America, but it is arguably much smaller in scope than Lonesome Dove.

Or maybe it’s because the description of Continental Drift on its Wikipedia page describes it as “an avowedly political work, whose stated aim is to ‘destroy the world as it is.'” The Pulitzer Board can be nervous about controversy, as it was when it decided not to award a prize for fiction at all rather than see it go to Gravity’s Rainbow, which the Board deemed to be obscene.

Did it help that McMurtry had become an American author of note with a history of hits? Or that the biggest of those books had also inspired hit movies–one of which was released to great acclaim a mere two years prior? It might not have been the deciding factor, but it couldn’t have hurt.

I have read neither The Accidental Tourist nor Continental Drift, so I don’t feel that I can accurately weigh in when it comes to comparing their merits.

Should Lonesome Dove Have Won the Pulitzer?

This is a bit tricky since I haven’t read the other two finalists, but I do feel comfortable saying that Lonesome Dove was the right choice. If nothing else, it has stood the test of time far better than the other two finalists, going so far as to become regarded as a modern classic. Anne Tyler and Russell Banks have sterling reputations (and Tyler even went on to win a Pulitzer for Breathing Lessons), but neither one of them can claim to have written a modern classic.

Looking at other books published in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale immediately jumps out, but since Margaret Atwood is Canadian it would not be eligible for a Pulitzer–even if it had been the big hit we now consider it at the time it was published. Other big books published that year are John Irving’s The Cider House Rules, Don DeLillo’s White Noise, and Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridien. I would still go with Lonesome Dove.

Lonesome Dove, Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner by Larry McMurtry

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