The Last Kind Words Saloon

  • Author: Larry McMurtry
  • Published: 2014

Perhaps it’s because he grew up on a Texas ranch, or because his kin would gather on that ranch's front porch each night and swap stories, or maybe it’s because he didn’t see a book until he was six years old, giving him a reverence for the written word at an early age… Whatever the reason, no one writes about the old west like Larry McMurtry. It’s in his blood.

The famed author of Lonesome Dove, The Last Picture Show and Terms of Endearment is back at it, and this time he has trained his crafty old eyes on the closing of the American frontier. The Last Kind Words Saloon is a short novel, centered on the twilight of an untamed era.

The late 1800’s were a time of transition. The open prairie now boxed in by cattle ranches, the Commanches reduced to desperate acts of terror, and the south left in shambles after the great war. America was becoming settled, the violence of it’s birth now blinking out behind the trees. McMurtry captures the wistfulness of the age by using a grizzled old Wyatt Earp and an ailing Doc Holliday as his muses. In McMurtry's telling, the pair now fritter away their afternoons with cards and whiskey in the small settlement of Long Grass, Texas. Gone are their halcyon days as lawmen picking fights and corralling drunk cowboys. They argue like old maids and go on the occasional bender - the distance between their legends and their reality elongating like a shadow. McMurtry brings the pair back down to size without dampening their mystique. He writes them as the old guns they were - tough, sarcastic, impatient and fish out of water. Their snappy back and forth masking the undercurrent of their ache. Earp and Doc scramble from boomtown to boomtown, opening and shuttering saloons and brothels, and wearing the badge when it suits them. They even spend a brief stint as gunslingers in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, before that folds up too - not even a make-believe old west can survive the march of industry. It’s a life spent outrunning the stranglehold of civilized society. The more stable each town becomes, the less it seems to suit them.

McMurtry rounds out his lineup with a colorful cast of supporting characters. There’s Wyatt’s wife Jessie - whom specializes in tending bar and getting under his skin; Lord Ernle, the rich English baron looking to grow a cattle empire; the exotic and voluptuous San Saba, a prostitute of the highest order; Charlie Goodnight, the Texas Ranger with a quick temper trying to make it as a cattleman, and Nellie Courtright, the plucky reporter always chasing a story. The prose breezes by and culminates in the infamous shootout at the O.K. Corral between the Earps and the Clantons. McMurtry writes of the event as just another day in the old west, and it barely takes up the space of a page. The approach seems fitting, since it wasn’t until the old west was really gone that such shootouts became the stuff of legend. 

The Last Kind Words Saloon is by no means a classic, but nor does it try to be. It’s simply a chronicle of the last days of the cowboys. McMurtry handles the details with the grace and ease of a master craftsman, pulling back and pressing forward at all the right times. He’s now an aging legend himself, so it’s no surprise his version of Earp and Holiday shimmer with the touch of authenticity. His graceful writing a perfect match for men incapable of aging so.