This weekend, amid the travel and the trials of my schedule, I managed to finish Larry McMurtry’s new novel The Last Kind Words Saloon. McMurtry fans used to the sweeping and descriptive prose found in his signature novel Lonesome Dove will find this book a little disjointed at first– not in plot or development of character, but in the lack of the aforementioned prose into which McMurtry usually dips his pen. It’s heavy on the meat, light on the accouterments, but enjoyable even in light of the departure in style.
I’m not writing this to critique a modern master, so I’ll get down to the brass tacks before I start sounding like the hack that I would undoubtably be were I a literary critic.
You’ll know the main characters in The Last Kind Words Saloon whether you’re familiar with any of McMurtry’s previous works or not– Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. You’ll know the events that the book builds up to– the shootout at the OK Corral. You’ve heard the story before.
What will surprise you this time around, I think, because it certainly did me, is the way in which the two men are cast. Although mostly conjecture, since that’s all we can really do when it comes to knowing the people behind the names within our history books, McMurtry treats neither Earp or Holliday with the Giants-of-the-Old-West hero worship we’ve grown accustomed to. In fact, I found myself disliking both characters rather easily from time to time.
That got me thinking.
Put aside the fact that this novel is largely a work of fiction. Consider for a moment that these two men were in all probability more like they’re presented in this book than they were in, say, Tombstone. Imagine for a second that McMurtry is telling the truth about these two men– giving you a glimpse of the human and not the hero.
Telling the truth is hard work if you’re a writer. It’s dangerous work. Sometimes people don’t want to believe that something or someone they love isn’t as they wish them to be in their mind’s eye. In spite of this danger, though, it’s the writer’s job to tell the truth. Even if you’re writing about yourself, which, given my line of work is a fairly regular occurrence, you have to tell the truth. It’s the essence of quality when it comes to writing.
I like the fact that McMurtry didn’t pander to our ideas of The Hero of the Great American West. I like that he took the chance to present them as the gritty, unlikable characters that, in life, they probably were. He makes you laugh from time to time while he does it, as is his style, but he gives Earp and Holliday none of the free passes as has the kindly dust of history.
If you’re a writer, that treatment alone is something to admire.
date: Monday, May 19th
place: home, New Braunfels, TX
words: 484 (really, really sorry Hooper)