In a short preface to his new book, The Last Kind Words Saloon, Larry McMurtry writes a sort of mea culpa: “I had the great director John Ford in mind when I wrote this book; he famously said that when you had to choose between history and legend, print the legend. And so I’ve done.”
True to his word, McMurtry’s new book includes stories about legendary figures of the Old West, colored with the bleak themes of modern realism and the ethereal tone of a fairy tale. The Last Kind Words Saloon features gunfighters like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, the Wild West showman “Buffalo Bill” Cody, and the famous cattleman Charles Goodnight. But they appear here as mere mortals. They are men who embody the courage required to tame uncharted territories of the West; they claim the attention of those who would write its legends in dime novels as much as the anxieties and boredom of ordinary people just trying to get by.
McMurtry’s versions of these characters are neither particularly good nor talented. Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday are terrible shots with their sidearms. In one sequence, they shoot bottles for target practice and pop off 40 rounds before hitting anything. Charlie Goodnight is unconcerned with his place in history, motivated mostly by keeping his rather excitable wife happy. They aren’t heroes so much as people whose aimless habits and unstudied cruelty happened to capture the spirit of the age.
The Last Kind Words Saloon is a beautiful, dreamy, deeply melancholy book, connecting legend and disparate threads of history in a seamless pastiche of tall tales drawn against the context of their real circumstances. It’s not revisionist history, though; the book’s appeal has little to do with the narrative novelty of making famous people meet each other in some “what if?” scenario. McMurtry is less concerned with the famous exploits of famous men—the shootout at the OK Corral takes the space of only a few lines—than providing a space to meditate on the sort of character and spirit that produce them.
McMurtry attempted a similar maneuver with his last book, Custer. In that book’s preface, the writer describes his book about General George Armstrong Custer and the battle at Little Big Horn as a “short history,” and he certainly tries to endow that central character with all the tragic flaws and panache of his other fictional creations, while still hewing to the letter of history. But McMurtry is not a historian, and Custer never really gelled or directed its gaze where it should have. In his novels, McMurtry is a master of setting his attention at the small moments behind the big ones, but in the previous book neither the big nor the small moments really held focus. The Last Kind Words Saloon fulfills the promise of Custer by showing that true characters are more important than historical veracity.
By filling in the basic shapes of these larger-than-life characters with real, fallible flesh, McMurtry merges the legend and the everyman. He forces the reader to view the lives of storybook figures from the inside, and reveals those lives as fraught with the same passive sense of being caught up in an epic story.
For McMurtry, the sad story of how the Old West was lost must be told in terms of the men and women whose lives are no less relatable for having the mantle of legend hung on them, heroes that aren’t heroic because of their exploits but because they continue to plod along in their deliberate, human way.