The Last Kind Words Saloon
Larry McMurtry has chronicled the American West in a fashion unparalleled by any contemporary writer. He first wrote about the modern West in HORSEMAN, PASS BY and then focused on the same era in THE LAST PICTURE SHOW. Both of these books would be adapted successfully to the big screen, with the former being released under the title Hud.
McMurtry then turned his attention to the legendary West with LONESOME DOVE, for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Never resting on his laurels, he wrote the screenplay for BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, a modern cowboy story that impacted America in ways the nation is still confronting. And McMurtry just keeps going and going. Now 77, he has written 32 novels and 14 works of nonfiction. This is in addition to his ownership of one of the largest bookstores on the planet, Booked Up, in Archer City, Texas. Several years ago, he seemed to be concluding his book-writing career with the publication of three introspective memoirs: BOOKS, LITERARY LIFE and HOLLYWOOD.
But the iconic author is not finished quite yet. In THE LAST KIND WORDS SALOON, McMurtry once again returns to poke a few holes in Western myth and legend, this time discussing the life of Wyatt Earp and the myth of an iconic gunfight, the shootout at the O.K. Corral. While romanticized in the minds of many, the gunfight was really nothing more than the end result of a petty dispute between two families.
"While the number of pages may be brief, the myth-busting is copious. Most of the cowboys and men portrayed are less than mythical, unless getting drunk is the stuff of legends."
THE LAST KIND WORDS SALOON is more a novella than an epic saga of the West. It is 58 short chapters spanning a mere 200 pages, covering a brief passage of time and moving briskly from Texas to Denver to Tombstone, Arizona. We learn just enough about the characters --- Wyatt Earp , Doc Holliday and their supporting cast --- to cement McMurtry’s thesis that the romanticized Western tales strongly influencing American thought are simply myths. As recent events in Nevada and other Western states often remind us, the false belief in these nostalgic myths can be harmful.
While the number of pages may be brief, the myth-busting is copious. Most of the cowboys and men portrayed are less than mythical, unless getting drunk is the stuff of legends. When Wyatt and Doc are invited by Buffalo Bill to perform in his Western show, they are unable to reenact any gunfights because they are terrible shots. The one thing that the men of the West can hit is their spouse. Wyatt often strikes his wife, Jesse, in a manner that draws blood, while Doc twice breaks his significant other’s nose. McMurtry has observed in a recent interview that “The Western myth is a heroic myth, and yet settling the West was not heroic. It ended with Custer, it was the end of the settlement narrative, which had been going on since 1620.” As hard as he tries to dispel the myth, McMurtry cannot escape the mythology embraced by most Americans.
Even as he seeks to paint an accurate portrait of the American West, McMurtry is unable to hide a grudging appreciation of that part of America’s culture. He is a traditionalist, as proven by his manual typewriter, newspaper reading and 200,000-volume bookstore. Exposing these traditions for both good and bad is McMurtry’s talent. His contribution to American literature reminds us that legend remains potent in our historical fabric.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on May 9, 2014