review Anita Paddock
By Larry McMurtry
W. W. Norton, 195 pages: $24.95
A fellow booklover gave me this to read when I was under the weather recently. It’s a perfect “recovery novel,” so beautifully written it transports you to another time. The title, The Last Kind Words Saloon, I believe, is a metaphor about the end of an era, and the demise of the last literary characters of the American West like Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and Charles Goodnight.
Fans of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove might be expecting an epic novel, but this is a slender book, wonderfully crafted, but without the bulk of some of his other novels. A good way to look at it is this: Lonesome Dove is like a full course meal and The Last Kind Words Saloon is like a pleasant glass of lemonade on a hot summer day. Yet one thing remains the same. The dialogue between characters will make you laugh out loud.
Wyatt Earp is really not much of a hero. He mistreats his wife, Jessie, who’s their primary source of income from her work as a bartender. Their pal, Doc Holliday, is a drunk with tuberculosis. They mostly just sit around waiting for a card game at The Last Kind Words Saloon.
The story opens in Long Grass, a dusty little town in Texas, close to New Mexico. Charles Goodnight brings a herd of cattle in from the plains to be shipped from the railway in town. Goodnight is a man of few words, but the best cattleman and trailblazer on the western plains. As a former Texas Ranger, he’s never been lost, day or night, in any kind of weather. His wife, Mary, who teaches in a little shack of a schoolhouse, is like all the other wives of the famous heroes of the West; she deserves a much better husband and life, but it’s what she’s got, and she’s the kind of woman who makes do.
The train arrives in Long Grass with a fancy railcar painted royal blue. It belongs to Lord Ernle who is going into the cattle business with Goodnight. He is also building a great castle on a bluff overlooking the Canadian River. Miles of track have been laid to bring in supplies and workmen. The castle is a source of wonder for everyone who passes by and causes considerable anger in Mary Goodnight who wonders why she must sleep in a tent while her husband’s partner builds a castle.
Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday leave Long Grass to join a Wild West Show in Denver. Jessie comes along, thinking she can find a good bartending job there. We follow their adventures, as well as those back in Long Grass, which involves a deadly cattle stampede and a vicious sand storm. Quanah Parker shows up and retells his glory days as the last Comanche Chief and his trips to Washington D.C. to visit President Teddy Roosevelt.
All the characters in this novel will be familiar to
readers of the American West. McMurtry brings them to life once again, recalling their rambunctious lives and making us feel right at home.