The Real West, At Last

When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
—John Ford

Already in the 1880s a cannily vulgar mythologizing of the Old West had begun. Here are Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday awkwardly impersonating themselves in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in Denver, as reported in Larry McMurtry’s radically distilled new novel The Last Kind Words Saloon:

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Twentieth Century Fox/Everett Collection
Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, 1946
The gunfighter skit involving Wyatt and Doc did not, at first, go well at all. For one thing the pair had not bothered to practice—both despised practice, on the whole.
“Pull a pistol out of a dern holster and shoot it—why would that require practice?” Wyatt wondered….
Sure enough, on the very first draw, Wyatt yanked his gun out so vigorously that it somehow flew out of his hand and landed twenty feet in front of him with the barrel in the dirt.
Doc, meanwhile, had the opposite problem: he had jammed his pistol in its holster so tight that it wouldn’t come out. This behavior annoyed Doc so much that he ripped off the holster and threw it at a bronc, which happened to be loose in the arena.
The crowd was largely silent: this was not what they had expected; many members of the audience were eager to get on to the dramatic reenactment of Custer’s Last Stand….
“They’ve made it into a comedy routine,” [Bill Cody] said….
The second night went little better. Some prop man filled Doc’s gun with blanks but forgot to do the same with Wyatt’s. Doc then shot Wyatt six times while Wyatt snapped his useless pistol six times.

If the fabled gunslingers had been skilled actors playing “Wyatt Earp” and “Doc Holliday”—quasi-historic Wild West figures—the audience, eager to be entertained, would have applauded; unfortunately, the men are the actual Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, thus at a disadvantage. By the time they finally get their routine right, the crowd has lost interest; by the sixth night of performing, the show is shut down by Harry Tammen, “the magnate who owned the show and most of Colorado.” The disappointed gunslingers are told that there are other shows: “Texas Jack might hire you, and there’s plenty of gambling dens here in Denver.”1

Drawing upon the particular sort of bittersweet/sardonic nostalgia for the Texas past that pervades McMurtry’s grand epic Lonesome Dove (1985), the most acclaimed and best-loved of his many novels, The Last Kind Words Saloon is a deftly narrated, often comically subversive work of fiction described by its author as a “ballad in prose whose characters are afloat in time; their legends and their lives in history rarely match.” If Lonesome Dove is a chronicle of the cattle-driving West that contains within its vast, broad ranges a small but heartrending intimate tragedy of paternal neglect, The Last Kind Words Saloon is a dark postmodernist …

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  1. 1

    McMurtry has explored the phenomenon of the making of Old West mythology previously, in The Colonel and Little Missie: Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, and the Beginnings of Superstardom in America (Simon and Schuster, 2005). In The Last Kind Words Saloon the narrator mentions offhandedly how after Wyatt Earp’s intervention with the Clanton herd of cattle and the subsequent stampede, the subject of chapter fifty, a popular “dime novelist” wrote about the incident in a “dime novel,” Ghost Herd of the Animas :

    It sold a million copies. Forty years later tourists thought they saw ghost cattle racing through the sage at dawn. Wyatt and Doc were often mentioned, and yet neither of them had fired a shot.