This slight and swift-moving novella follows Wyatt Earp and his best bud, Doc Holliday, around an increasingly settled west. In addition to these two main characters, who do little but gamble, drink and very occasionally get into some gunplay, we meet Wyatt’s wife, Jessie, a rancher, Charlie Goodnight, a madam, San Saba, and an intrepid lady reporter, Nellie Courtwright. Several of the other Earp brothers are mentioned but exist mostly off-screen, as impetus for the plot (Virgil become sheriff, Morgan opening a new saloon).
McMurtry’s novel features less glamourous exploits and less heroic heroes. Wyatt and Doc largely lounge around and gamble; they admit that they aren’t very good gun fighters and there isn’t much purpose to what they do. One of the shorter vignettes has then joining Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, only after being reassured that the guns fire blanks and its all for show, no real shooting required.
The back cover blurb states that McMurtry is trying to capture the end of the wild west, when the open ranges were closing in and the wildness was giving way to civilization. I can see that theme in several of the shorter vignettes- the very last one, where Jesse and Wyatt have succumbed to civilization in their old age, and the Buffalo Bill show- but the others don’t achieve this focus for me, and I’m not quite sure how they’re all drawing together. Charlie Goodnight and cattle drives, San Saba and her opportunistic resourcefulness, Jessie and her desire to provoke Wyatt into a demonstration of affection- these characters feature more heavily in the other vignettes and they all possess a drive and purpose that Doc and Wyatt lack. I’m sure this is purposeful- the two wild west legends weren’t driven lawmen, but aimless, lethargic drifters, unsure of their reason d’etre as the west changes around them- but it was harder to pull out in the initial reading.
I haven’t read McMurtry’s famed Lonesome Dove series, but he writes well, definitely capturing a spare but old fashioned wild west atmosphere. The Goodreads reviews for this one were mixed, and most suggest starting with a more substantial McMurtry novel first, and not letting this stand in as a good representative of his usual works. I’d be inclined to agree- I didn’t dislike this one, but it wasn’t solid enough to stick in my mind either. I keep comparing it to the other western I read this year, Annie Proulx’s Close Range- Proulx’s was a firecracker, a 90 point bull ride; Last Kind Words is an elegy, a slow drift out of the grandstand at the end of the rodeo.