McMurtry fans will be surprised and probably disappointed by this book. When they think of McMurtry, no doubt they think of the palpable worlds he created in books like Lonesome Dove or Comanche Moon or The Last Picture Show. Such worlds have not been brought into being in this book. To say that it is laconic or minimalist is probably to understand the case. One example—the famous shoot-out at the OK Corral takes place in a few sentences in this novel. If you are looking for life in the imagination, you won’t find much of it on display here. And that is unfortunate.
There are several story lines. One is the friendship between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. These two have been considerably romanticized over the years, but nothing will be added to their legends with this novel. Historically, Wyatt Earp was not a lion of law enforcement as he is often presented, but a drifter, a gambler, possibly a horse thief and a con man. Doc Holliday was a dentist who came to the West hoping its dry climate would help ease his tuberculosis, of which he was slowly dying.
The other main plot revolves around cattle rancher Charlie Goodnight, his travails, friendships, marriage, none of which is very interesting, sad to say.
There are other characters—a couple of murderous Indians, Nellie Courtwright (the reporter), Buffalo Bill, Johnny Behind-the-Deuce, a rock-throwing Scot, and the mean, unclean and larcenous pater familias of the Clanton family, Old Man Clanton, among others.
None of these characters ever comes alive, and it must be McMurtry’s intention that they are presented so flatly. In an epigraph, he writes that “The Last Kind Words Saloon is a ballad in prose whose characters are afloat in time; their legends and their lives in history rarely match. I had the great director John Ford in mind when I wrote this book; he famously said that when you had to choose between history and legend, print the legend. And so I’ve done.” What a ballad in prose is, this writer is unsure. But if this book is one, I won't be needing many more.
Perhaps McMurtry intended this to be a legend of the old West, but he seems to have missed the mark. The book just plain lacks excitement and interest. As short as it is, it was difficult to finish because it never engages one’s imagination. And that’s a real shame because Larry McMurtry is a terrific writer, one capable of so much more.