Monday, February 6, 2017

OK Corral in brief

How many novels do you suppose have been written about Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the gunfight at OK Corral? Probably about as many as the movies made about these subjects. The last such novel I read was Richard S. Wheeler's excellent Trouble in Tombstone. Mary Doria Russell's recent efforts (Doc and Epitaph) still await my attention. Meanwhile there's Larry McMurtry's minimalist version, The Last Kind Words Saloon (2014).

The novel is just 196 pages long and has 58 chapters, plus an epilogue. This includes several blank pages and four two-page photographs. The famous gunfight itself takes up less than a half page. It's hard to believe this is the same Larry McMurtry who wrote such monsters as Lonesome Dove and Texasville. But that was a younger McMurtry. The older McMurtry, now 80, writes small. Yet it is amazing how much story and how much character development he fits into these few pages.

The novel begins in the small town of Long Grass. Wyatt and Doc think it may be in Texas, but they aren't sure. They travel to Denver to appear briefly in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, then back to Mobetie, Texas, and finally to Tombstone, Ariz. The Last Kinds Words Saloon, or at least the sign for that wandering saloon, travels with them. One of Wyatt's brothers, Warren, sets up a saloon business wherever he goes, and he goes wherever Wyatt and his other brothers go. Wyatt's wife, Jessie, tends bar in that saloon. For that reason, Wyatt does his drinking elsewhere. He doesn't mind his wife working, especially since working is not something he likes to do himself, but he doesn't like seeing cowboys flirt with her. When he does, there is trouble, not for the cowboys but for Jessie. The most violent part of the novel is not that famous gunfight but when Wyatt strikes Jessie. She takes it as a sign that he really does love her.

Most of the novel's characters were real people, not just Doc, the Earps and the Clantons, but also Buffalo Bill, cattle baron Charlie Goodnight, reporter Nellie Courtright (featured in McMurtry's Telegraph Days) and others. The brutal Indian warriors Satanta and Satank are here, too, though they are dealt with so quickly that one wonders why McMurtry bothered. Probably just to stretch the novel to 196 pages.

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