Stories of the Old West
Larry McMurtry’s The Last Kind Words Saloon offers a wonderful summation of his writings on frontier life.
If you think you know the Old West, then you should thank novelist Larry McMurtry. His epic stories of gunslingers and wild Comanches have shaped our views of the great American frontier. McMurtry’s newest book, The Last Kind Words Saloon, is a kind of sketchbook covering his whole oeuvre. Mixing historical facts and figures with characters from previous books, McMurtry has created both a great introduction to his favorite themes and a summing up of his career.
The Last Kind Words Saloon is ostensibly the story of the last days of Wyatt Earp and his friend, Doc Holliday. Told in short, pithy scenes, its vignettes capture moments of drama and humdrum existence. McMurtry has a way with period dialogue and tinges his sometimes melancholy sketches with warmth and humor. You always have the feeling that each character is treated with respect and care, no matter how short the appearance.
This novel is no Lonesome Dove epic, but rather a coda to McMurtry’s previous large-scale tales of the West. That is not to say that there isn’t scope and spectacle here, but it is rendered is swift strokes. Sandstorms, cattle stampedes, Kiowa attacks, and such, all get brilliant descriptions and then fade into the memories of the characters. Even the legendary 1881 Gunfight at the OK Corral is more a symbol than a set-piece. Historians often mark the end of the Wild West period from this incident, but here it functions as a final hurrah for Doc and Wyatt.
McMurtry presents a multicultural Western tapestry with African Americans, Mexicans, Native Americans, and Caucasians all struggling to survive in a harsh environment. He treats each with an even hand. He is also careful to remind us that the West was won by women, as well as men. From an exotic Turkish courtesan to reporter Nellie Courtland (from his previous novel, Telegraph Days), women show grit and determination even in the face of abuse by the men.
The cast of characters is rich indeed. Real–life figures like cattleman Charles Goodnight (from McMurtry’s previous novel, Comanche Moon), Buffalo Bill, and Johnny Ringo join Doc and Wyatt in interactions with fictional creations. This juxtaposition of true and make-believe gives the whole story more heft and realism. I was sent to research many times, trying to sort out the two strands. Ultimately one realizes that, as in most legends, they are inextricably entwined.
The canvas McMurtry describes is vast. From the hick town, Long Grass, Texas (somewhere between Kansas and New Mexico) to the booming silver mines of Tombstone, Arizona, we are treated to a kind of historic travelogue that covers transportation dangers, whorehouse customs, and the eccentricities of English lords. Although his knowledge of the period is obviously deep and thorough, the tidbits are dropped in with great subtlety and aplomb. We never feel lectured to, only present — like time travelers.
The Earp brothers and their stand against the criminal Clantons and their allies, the McLaurey brothers, is often presented as a battle between good and evil, law and lawlessness. As McMurtry shows us, it was not that simple. Even as today, the West had its share of psychopaths and serial killers. Whether they wore sheriffs’ badges or not was often irrelevant. Mercy might be found in the cruelest killer and a murderous impulse may be under the surface of a kindly dentist. Guns were abundant and each time you said good-bye to someone, it might be the last time you’d see them. Not much different from the often violent world we inhabit. Perhaps that is McMurtry’s greatest point.
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Monday, June 30 (7:00 PM): Summerfest Break with Jonathan Lethem, author of The Fortress of Solitude and Dissident Gardens at Boswell Book Company, 2559 N. Downer Ave., Milwaukee. (414) 332-1181 boswell.indiebound.com/
July 1 -31: Find Waldo Local 2014 Scavenger Hunt and Wrap-Up Party. On July 1, 2014, Waldo-spotters will set off on a hunt to find the elusive character hidden around dozens of local businesses across Milwaukee. Stop by Boswell to pick up your Find Waldo Local 2014 Passport, which lists participating local businesses where you’ll go in and find Waldo! When you find him, let the employees know so they can stamp your passport. When you’ve collected 15 stamps, bring your passport back to Boswell for a prize, coupon, and a raffle ticket automatically entering you to win one of our fantastic prizes drawn at the Find Waldo Local 2014 Wrap-Up Party from 3:00 to 5:00 PM on Thursday, July 31st at Boswell Book Company, where kids will be served refreshments and participate in Waldo-themed activities.