The Last Kind Words Saloon by Larry McMurtry
McMurtry pops the bubbles of several of the western hero clichés in this short novel. Doc Holiday, Wyatt and the Earp Brothers, Charlie Goodnight, Quanta Parker, and a few others bouce from Denver to Texas to Tombstone Arizona. None of them are portrayed as heroic figures; their deeds are pointless, their mistakes and foibles all too human, their lives short and mostly ugly and without meaning.
The writing is elegiac, sprightly, and the dialog humorous in the way that many of McMurtry’s dark/light cowboy duos are. His treatment of gender relations is pretty similar to what he has done elsewhere, in which clueless, work-obsessed men disappoint their ladies with their fumbling lack of social grace.
The only thing that perplexed me was this: McMurtry is busy setting up and knocking down legends here; taking clichés and masterfully subjecting them to the harsh spotlight of a modern sensibility on what they might have really been like. (The casual domestic abuse scene, for example.) But when it comes to the Indians, they are mostly treated like stage villians, no more nuanced than Blue Duck in Lonesome Dove. They torture whites for fun, roast genitals, “invade the privates of female captives with fireants” and so on. The savage redman cliché is treated here with all the nuance of a Michael Meyers film. And I’m not sure why, because LMM certainly is aware of what he’s doing.
The “showdown at the OK Corral” for which Tombstone is best known takes place in less than two pages; we watch see Wyatt Earp’s last days as a geriatric suffering dementia in Santa Monica, well into the age of the automobile. He was, in McMurtry’s telling, a legend who never deserved to be remembered.