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Onyx reviews: The Last Kind Words Saloon by Larry McMurtry

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 05/31/2014

At the beginning of this brief book (nominally 160 pages consisting of 58 short chapters that the author calls collectively a "prose ballad"), McMurtry cites the old John Ford adage: when given the choice between history and legend, print the legend.

However, the versions of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the rest of their kin and friends presented herein are viewed in the most unromantic and unglamorous light possible. Wyatt Earp, the hero of the gunfight at the OK Corral, is a drunk with poor hygiene, taciturn, unfriendly, lazy, jealous but unable to satisfy his wife Jessie's needs, and occasionally abusive toward her. When Holliday, the dentist, isn't gambling, he's drunk, but at least he's friendly. Jessie, for her part, occasionally incites her husband to rage just to get a reaction out of him. To make something happen to keep the tedium at bay.

The wild, wild west is an inglorious place. The settlers live hard lives, and confront such unexpected challenges as stampedes of thousands of cattle that can overrun small towns, dust storms that threaten to derail trains, hailstorms, and the occasional sortie by the native Americans who haven't yet adjusted to reservation life. Everyone seems to spend most of their time in a bad mood, or drunk. This isn't quite Deadwood, but almost.

The book follows the Earp clan from Long Grass, which may be in Kansas or New Mexico, or possibly even Texas. Even the people who live there aren't sure. The title comes from a sign Warren Earp carries from place to place, although no one knows what it's supposed to mean. Nothing is permanent out there. When a wealthy rancher wants to establish a town, he figures he can simply relocate Mobetie, since it only consists of a few buildings and can easily be moved.

Wyatt Earp has a reputation for being a crack shot, but the truth is that he rarely carries a gun, and when he does he prefers to hit unruly people over the head with it instead of shooting it. He privately confesses to Doc Holliday that he might be able to shoot a buffalo, if he's close enough (and if there were any left). When he and Holliday are hired by Buffalo Bill to join his traveling sideshow in a display of gunmanship, neither man performs particularly well and the show soon folds. The Earps and Holliday wander from place to place, ending up in Tombstone, Arizona. Virgil Earp is the sheriff and Warren Earp establishes the latest incarnation of his saloon. Wyatt's long-suffering wife is a bartender, though Wyatt generally frequents the town's other bar to steer clear of her.

The big showdown with the Clantons and their allies isn't over much of substance and arises mostly because Wyatt was in a surly and contentious mood that day. The Clantons aren't well liked, so when they approach town with a herd of cattle, intending to drive them through the streets, Wyatt, in an especially dour mood, turns them aside. Later the Clanton patriarch is murdered and many suspect Wyatt as the perpetrator, though nothing is ever proved. McMurtry recounts the famous shootout, the stuff of legends and many Western movies, in less than half a page. It's a petty dispute with a deadly outcome that has not a tinge of heroics in his hands.

It's not clear what McMurtry intends to do with this book. Some of the stories recounted in the short chapters are vignettes; however, he does a remarkable job of depicting a large group of unique characters, including a Turkish madam who runs the local whorehouse, a rich Englishman who wants to build the largest ranch in the world, and a female journalist who gets the book's last word on the Earps after visiting them in California where Wyatt and Jesse live in squalor.

To add a sense of veritas, McMurtry includes vintage photographs at the beginning of the four sections, each one representing a different geographic location. There's a lot to the Earp story that he doesn't tell. Since he's "telling the legend" rather than the history, that's his choice. However, this legend isn't all that interesting, although it may be a reasonably accurate rendering of what life was like in the west when law and order were more theoretical than real. 

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