THE LAST KIND WORDS SALOON
by Larry McMurtry
Published in 2014 by Liveright.
Reviewed by Michael Sirois
The Last Kind Words Saloon is Larry McMurtry’s latest foray into the mythology of the Wild West. If you’re expecting another Lonesome Dove, it has some similarities, but it’s about 600 pages lighter. Even so, an engrossing story lays between the covers, and McMurtry’s stripped down prose conveys the feeling of the Old West as few other writers can.
Instead of fictional cowboys, like Lonesome Dove’s Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call, most of the characters in this new book are historical figures. Two of these, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, split most of the pages with two characters from previous novels, Charles Goodnight (a real life Texas cattleman and rancher extraordinaire), and Nellie Courtright (the fictional, sexually adventurous telegraph operator from McMurtry’s Telegraph Days). The four of them manage to meet up with a wide range of personalities, famous and infamous, as the novel wends its way toward an expected conclusion, considering who Wyatt and Doc were.
The Last Kind Words Saloon is the name of the bar owned by Wyatt’s brother, Warren, and is tended by Wyatt’s wife, Jessie. As the Wyatt brothers move from place to place, they take the saloon’s sign with them and reconstitute the business in each new location.
The story begins in Long Grass, a town “which is nearly in Kansas,” or maybe New Mexico, “but not quite,” making it likely that it’s probably in Texas. The short chapters are filled with Wyatt and Doc just trying to mind their own business and get through life day by day. Naturally, action — in the form of cattle stampedes, storms, Indian raids, and the occasional rustler or gunslinger — always manages to find them. They move from one incident to another, expending just enough energy to get them to the next bottle of whiskey, or the next card game.
Don’t expect glorious descriptions of western sunsets, this is McMurtry at his best, spare prose and insightful dialogue, with many of the best lines going to the women in the book: Charles’ wife, Mary; San Saba, the local madam; and Nellie and Jessie.
Many of the chapters seemed — at first — like unrelated vignettes; but the narrative led gradually to Tombstone, Arizona, and the O.K. Corral. We all know what we think happened there, and McMurtry’s very brief take on the gunfight, lasting about as long as the gunfight itself, may or may not mesh with your own thoughts about it, depending on which of the many versions you are familiar with, so I will just say it struck me as a completely plausible possibility (and the few pages following that chapter provided a nice twist that tied all the vignettes together in a satisfying way).
Armed with English and Drama degrees, Michael Sirois has taught writing, drama, and technology for two decades, while continuing to act and write. One of his stories, Loonie Louie, placed in the top 100 of the 1989 Writer’s Digest’s Short Story contest. The 1990’s saw his one-act play, Baum in Limbo, produced in Houston. His screenplay, An Ordinary Day, survived the first round of cuts in the 2005 season of Project Greenlight, beating out over 5,000 other scripts. An excerpt from his first novel, If a Butterfly, was featured in Rice University’s 2006 Writer’s Gallery.
He retired from Rice in 2009, and lives with his wife, Minay, in a suburb of Houston, where he is hard at work on a third novel, The Hawthorn’s Sting (another thriller). Ideas for a few more are also floating around somewhere in his brain. You can explore that scary place through his writing blog and his website.