Native Texan Larry McMurtry, author of more than 50 books, has a reputation as tall as the Wild West’s tales. His latest, The Last Kind Words Saloon, takes a different approach. It’s pared down, with succinct prose, and bare-bones depictions of historical heroes who may not deserve to rest on such booze-laden laurels.
The novel’s momentum clocks a speed reflective of long, hot, dusty days wasted away in a saloon, and it’s shorter than usual. With emotion tucked firmly under a hat, each micro-chapter is a vignette, each of the four sections a moseying look at the cattle drive era gone by. McMurtry’s story opens in Long Grass, Texas with a whiskey-guzzling Wyatt Earp who can’t shoot a tin can, beats his wife, and has little respect for anyone but Doc Holliday - a man in just about the same boat. The not-so-dynamic duo tries their luck in Buffalo Bill’s show in Denver, moves along to Mobetie, Texas, and eventually lands in their infamous backdrop, Tombstone, Arizona. It’s not just the famed OK Corral shootout or the larger-than-life Good Ol’ Boys Club - Wyatt Earp and his brothers, Doc Holliday, Charlie Goodnight, Buffalo Bill, Quanah Parker, and the Clanton family - that entertain. It’s not just the vibrant women - Jessie, Wyatt’s common law wife; Nellie Courtright, heroine of McMurtry’s Telegraph Days; San Saba, a self-proclaimed courtesan - that make Saloon memorable. It’s everything between McMurtry’s lines. It’s the clip-clop of horses, the dust storms and missing buffalo, the snapshot views of an aging frontier’s soup pot of legends that add fire to this slow-burning story. On the surface, where the prose seems to hover, it’s a typical western with tight-lipped trail rides and dry humor, a few scenes of particular brutality, and shifting perspectives across wide territories. There isn’t the heart-stirring resonance of Last Picture Show or Lonesome Dove, and it’s not a sweeping epic. Instead, Saloon’s strength, though a little older and more tired than we expected, is in its sunset storytelling. Here the Wild West’s split between legend and reality is moving toward a truth that’s easier to handle at a slower pace. It’s not McMurtry’s finest, but it’s just fine. Larry McMurtry's The Last Kind Words Saloon (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 196 pg., $24.95) is available now.
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