I picked up a copy of Larry McMurtry's most recent novel, The Last Kind Words Saloon, at the airport in Kansas City as I was heading out for a vacation in Alaska a couple of weeks ago. A book by McMurtry just seemed to be a natural fit for a trip into the rugged and desolate northwest.
The prolific author had his first book, Horseman, Pass By, published in 1961 when he was just twenty-five-years-old. Two years later McMurtry wrote the screenplay for the movie, Hud, based on Horseman, Pass By. During the intervening years, McMurtry has written literally dozens of novels and screenplays, many of them award winners.
(My favorite book by Larry McMurtry is Lonesome Dove which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction - and my favorite movie of all time is The Last Picture Show which is a dramatization of a McMurtry novel of the same name.)
So, all things considered, The Last Kind Words Saloon seemed like a safe bet for a good vacation read - and I was not disappointed.
In this novel, Larry McMurtry takes a look at the complicated and intertwined lives of two of the Old West's more legendary characters: Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. He follows the two friends as they move through the final days of the frontier experience - from the cattle lands of Texas, to Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in Denver, to the gunfight that made them legendary in Tombstone - and beyond.
Wyatt's family plays important roles in this novel. His brother Virgil is always on the periphery of the action as a local lawman, and Warren runs a saloon. Warren's saloon has a sign out front declaring it to be "The Last Kind Words Saloon." As the family moves from place to place, Warren always drags his sign along hoping to acquire a saloon to hang it on. Jessie, Wyatt's wife, is a professional hostess who tends bar for Warren.
McMurtry depicts Wyatt Earp as a generally unemployed drinker and gambler who doesn't know how to respond to women. He disappears for days on end to enjoy the bottle, cards, and the pleasures of working girls, and he becomes violent with his wife when he gets frustrated. Doc Holiday is shown by McMurtry to be a better gambler than Wyatt, a heavy drinker, and a womanizer who is not the least bit particular about the women he beds. The author has these two characters exchanging clever one-liners and raunchy asides throughout most of the narrative.
The Last Kind Words Saloon traipses across the American west as the sun is beginning to set. Wyatt and Doc sense the darkness coming on, and slowly it consumes them until all that remains are legends.