Larry McMurtry, descendant of Texas cattlemen, can’t stop writing stories about the American West. His latest novel, The Last Kind Words Saloon, reimagines the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, an event he brought to life more vividly in his 2006 novel, Telegraph Days.
In this version, itinerant lawman Wyatt Earp and his pal Doc Holliday, the dentist turned gambler/gunslinger, are in the frontier town of Long Grass, Texas, where Wyatt’s wife, Jessie, tends bar at the Last Kind Words Saloon.
A big cattle deal is going down between an English baron and Charles Goodnight, a real-life Texas Panhandle cattleman about whom McMurtry has written before. Such historical figures as Buffalo Bill Cody and the Kiowa warriors Satank and Satanta drift in and out of the action, as do fictional characters from McMurtry’s earlier works, including Nellie Courtright, the lusty frontier journalist/narrator of Telegraph Days.
Inevitably, Wyatt and Doc make their way to Tombstone, Arizona, where Wyatt reunites with his lawmen brothers Virgil and Morgan and begins feuding with the Clanton gang. The climactic events of Oct. 26, 1881, unfold in a few sentences, ending on an odd note of marital discord between Jessie and Wyatt.
McMurtry clearly isn’t interested in burnishing the Wyatt Earp legend — he’s portrayed as a surly, shiftless wife beater — but he doesn’t offer much of a counter history either. The novel — he calls it “a ballad in prose whose characters are afloat in time” — ends with an epilogue narrated by Nellie, a sort of alter ego for McMurtry, both of whom have made good money in Hollywood writing about the West.
Years after the gunfight, she discovers that Wyatt and Jessie are living in a dilapidated bungalow in San Pedro, California. Wyatt is “rheumy-eyed” and doesn’t remember much about the shootout. She regrets going to visit them until she spies the sign for the Last Kind Words Saloon in their junk-strewn yard.
“Not quite sure why I wanted it,” she offers to buy it. When Jessie gives her the sign, she sticks it in the back of her car and drives home to Santa Monica. McMurtry — the Pulitzer Prize and Oscar-winning author of dozens of books and screenplays about the West, and an avid collector of rare books — may be suggesting that nearly a century and a half after the closing of the American frontier, its battered artifacts are as resonant as its stories.
Ann Levin reviewed this book for the Associated Press.