Thursday 21 June 2018

REVIEW: The Last Kind Words Saloon by Larry McMurtry

The Last Kind Words SaloonThe Last Kind Words Saloon by Larry McMurtry
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Anyone who knows me will almost certainly have heard me mention that Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry is one of my all time favourite books. I have read several other westerns penned by McMurtry, and whilst none of them has reached the heights of his Pulitzer-winning masterpiece, they have all been entertaining enough. So it was with some excitement that I spotted The Last Kind Words Saloon in a bookshop. I jumped at the chance to read a new McMurtry western, and the fact that it was short, was a plus for me, as I have very little time to read. That it was about Wyatt Earp, one of my favourite characters, clinched the deal.

I am not really sure what McMurtry was aiming for with The Last Kind Words Saloon, but it is written with his recognizable charm and sparse prose and has that feeling of authenticity that makes it feel as right as a well-worn pair of boots. Each chapter is a short vignette in the life of Earp, Doc Holliday, Charlie Goodnight and a handful of other western legends. The plot doesn't really go anywhere and McMurtry manages to sidestep and gloss over the showdown at the O.K. Corral, rather than make it the climax of the novel. I think this was intentional and perhaps says something about McMurtry's idea behind the novel. This is about the debunking of the western myths. Showing the sad, petty, violent and often lost people who became legends. There are no heroes in this vision of the American West, just drifters, drunks and chancers and some hard-working men and women who managed to forge a future for themselves in difficult times and in the harshest of terrains and climates.

It has the ennui of McMurtry's Buffalo Girls and perhaps even the shortness of the book was a nod to the subject matter being the sorrowful end of the golden age of the American frontier. If Lonesome Dove, with its close to a thousand pages, is a tour de force of western writing, The Last Kind Words Saloon, at about two hundred pages, feels like a shadow of McMurtry's most famous work, perhaps echoing the sad decline into insignificance of characters like Wyatt Earp who, rather than doing the decent thing and dying in a blaze of glory, lived out his later years in relative obscurity and poverty in California.

I enjoyed this book, mainly because McMurtry, even when he is not trying hard, can breathe life into his characters and write fabulous, insightful dialogue, but if you have not read Lonesome Dove, go there first. This one is for the true fan and best left as a slightly bitter digestif after the sumptuous main course.

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