Book: The Last Kind Words Saloon, by Larry McMurtry
Plot: Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and other historical western characters like Buffalo Bill Cody and Charles Goodnight interact with fictional characters in a mythic West.
Lines from the Opening Paragraphs:
A hat came skipping down the main street of Long Grass, propelled only by the wind, which was sharp for March. The had was brown felt and had a narrow brim.
“I believe that’s Doc Featherston’s hat,” Wyatt said. “He may have lost track of it while setting a limb.”
“Or, he might be over at the Orchid fornicating and let it blow out the window,” Doc Holliday suggested.
“Doubt it… only rich dentists such as yourself can afford the Orchid these days,” Wyatt said.
Doc drew his pistol and aimed at the hat but didn’t shoot.
“Why would a grown many want to be a dentist anyway?” Wyatt inquired.
“Well, for one thing, the cost of equipment is low,” Doc told him. “All you need is a pair of pliers and maybe a chisel for difficult cases.”
At the mention of a chisel Wyatt turned pale–he had always been squeamish.
“I am sorry I brought it up,” he said. “Are we going to sit here and let the good doctor’s hat blow clean away?”
A crow flew over. Dock shot at it twice, but missed.
Wyatt walked out in the street and picked up the hat.
Larry McMurtry is pound-for-pound the best writer to ever try his hand at the Western. In Lonesome Dove, he wrote a great American novel. In his other Westerns he has consistently written novels that are both literary and enjoyable, something few contemporary novelist ever manage to achieve.
His themes of loss and natural beauty are as haunting and beautiful as the changing western landscapes that he writes about. His characters, embodied in Gus & Call in Lonesome Dove, are at once both realistic and transcendent
The first thing that must be said though about The Last Kind Words Saloon is that it is not Lonesome Dove, or any of his other Westerns. In his prologue, McMurtry calls it a “ballad in prose.”
Historical and fictional characters move about a changing stage like characters in Waiting for Godot. The famous gun battle at the OK-Corral amounts to less than a few paragraphs and happens “off stage.” In the end, the best description for what The Last Kind Words Saloon is that it is an existential play about loss and change.
As I have said here before, I do not finish a lot novels, even novels I love or find compelling and beautifully written. I generally get about two-thirds of the way through and figure I have the gist of the book and a good feeling for what the writer is trying to do. In the plotless world of contemporary novels, this has never seemed like a failing. While I often feel the need to finish a mystery novel, I usually feel like I can easily abandon most any other novel anyplace before the last page.
And yet somehow I managed to finish The Last Kind Words Saloon. What is more, I have been thinking about it quite often in the days since I finished it. In the end, I suppose that those are the two most important things this reviewer can say about this or any novel.