Larry McMurtry, The Last Kind Words Saloon (New York: Liveright, 2014), 196pp.
Larry McMurtry (b. 1936) of Archer, Texas, has written some 50 books. This one is his first novel in five years. McMurtry is best known for his 1975 novel Terms of Endearment, which was turned into a film that won five Academy Awards; his 1985 novel Lonesome Dove that won a Pulitzer Prize and was adapted into a television mini-series; and as co-writer of the screenplay for Brokeback Mountain, which won three Oscars. Then there's his collection of 400,000 books, which in 2012 he whittled down to a mere 200,000 after a massive sale.
Like most of McMurtry's work, this novel is set in the 19th century wild west and features Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and other colorful characters like Buffalo Bill and Billy the Kid. The book is divided into 58 "chapters" in less than 200 pages. In McMurtry's historical fiction, these icons of the American imagination are demythologized. The buffalo are disappearing. The open plains are being consolidated into closed cattle ranches. There's a lot of card playing, salooning, whoring, and day dreaming about how to make money without working. Cowboy conversation rarely rises above verbal towel-snapping. Sandstorms plague the great, treeless plains. A stampede of 8,000 cattle from three different herds destroys everything in its path.
The story begins in Long Grass, "which is nearly in Kansas, but not quite. It's nearly in New Mexico, too, but not quite. Some have even suggested we might be in Texas." The action then moves to Denver, Mobetie in Texas (seven buildings and one tree), and finally Tombstone, Arizona, with a prosaic account of the shoot out at the O.K. Corral. McMurtry describes his latest novel as "a ballad in prose whose characters float in time; their legends and their lives in history rarely match."