(Reblog of ALEXANDRA ALTER’s article for wsj.com)
Larry McMurtry at his bookstore in Archer City, Texas Brandon Thibodeaux for The Wall Street Journal
by Alexandra Alter for wsj.com
It’s sort of surprising that it took Larry McMurtry this long to write a novel about the shootout at the O.K. Corral. The famous 30-second gunfight that broke out on Oct. 26, 1881, in Tombstone, Ariz., has become short hand for roughly delivered, vigilante-style justice.
Mr. McMurtry, author of the 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Lonesome Dove,” has tackled just about every other major myth about the Old West in the course of his 53-year literary career. He’s taken on revered 19th-century American figures including Billy the Kid, Calamity Jane, Crazy Horse, Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill Cody and George Custer, and has often made it his mission to brush off the romanticism and mythology that clings to the Old West.
In his new novel, “The Last Kind Words Saloon,” Mr. McMurtry, 77, unleashes his cynicism on the ornery gunslinger Wyatt Earp and his sidekick, the dentist Doc Holliday. They’re portrayed not as bold frontiersman, but trigger-happy drunks who stumble into the historic shootout.
The novel opens in Long Grass, Texas, where Holliday and Earp spend their days idly drinking and occasionally tangling with itinerant cowboys. The pair move to Denver, after Buffalo Bill Cody recruits them to act in his gunfighter skit. When they worry about injuries, Cody assures them that they’ll only be shooting blanks. “Probably be pretty safe,” Wyatt said. “Neither one of us can hit a barn with a pistol, anyway.”
During their humiliating first performance, Earp pulls out his gun too fast and throws it 20 feet in front of him, while Holliday can’t free his pistol from its holster. “They’ve made it into a comedy routine,” Cody grumbles. After the show closes down five nights later, Earp and Holliday make their way to Tombstone. They become the town’s de facto law enforcers and antagonize a group of drunk cowboys who are passing through. The tough talk between Earp, Holliday and the cowboys escalates to a chaotic gun battle near the O.K. Corral.
By turns tragic and sharply funny, “The Last Kind Words Saloon” is the latest example of Mr. McMurtry’s almost grudging obsession with the West and his conflicted relationship with the genre he helped resurrect.
“Early in his career, he called it ‘country and western literature,’ disparagingly,” said Mark Busby, an English professor at Texas State University who has studied Mr. McMurtry. “It seems to me with some of his later work, he’s said, ‘Well, hell, if that’s what they want me to do, I’ll just do it,’ even as he explodes those myths he’s taken on about the Old West.”
Mr. McMurtry, who splits his time between Archer City, Texas—where he owns the antiquarian bookstore Booked Up—and Tucson, Ariz., spoke by phone about writing “end-of-the-West” Westerns, why he changed publishers after 40 years, and the subject of his fourth memoir (himself, of course, and 62 women). Below, an edited transcript.
Almost 10 years ago you wrote an essay in the New York Review of Books about two nonfiction accounts of the life of Wyatt Earp. Did reading and critiquing those books inspire you to create your own fictionalized version?
No, I had written about Wyatt Earp before, in a book called “Telegraph Days.” Mostly, he’s just one of those Western characters that you fill in the blanks on. He wasn’t a nice man, but he wasn’t the deadliest man of his time, either. He was deadly enough, don’t get me wrong. He killed several people, but it wasn’t mass slaughter. The most famous example, at the O. K. Corral, in which he was about the only one who killed anybody, was an accident. It was a confrontation that nobody wanted. So I had written about Wyatt Earp, and I guess I did mention him in that New York Review piece, but it’s not like he preys on my mind. But when you’re writing an “end-of-the-West” western, which is what I’ve done, he’s a useful tool.
In your novel, the shootout at the O. K. Corral—one of the most famous gunfights in the history of the Old West—is the result of a misunderstanding. It’s almost a random act, certainly not the mythical battle that it’s come to be. How did you settle on this version of events?
I’m in Tucson, which is just a short hop down the road to Tombstone, so I’ve been there several times. I don’t believe a word that anybody in Tombstone says about it being an epic event. It was an accident and all of [the involved parties] wish they could have taken it back, but history doesn’t work that way. Wyatt and Doc, neither one of them had been armed when this started. Everybody was hoping that the cowboys would go home, and by accident it didn’t happen that way. The cowboys wandered off and back and they all surprised one another. They came around the photography shop and just started nervously shooting. It wasn’t a huge conflict. It was over in about 30 seconds. Wyatt is the only one, that I can tell, that actually killed. He killed two of the McLaury brothers, maybe three, I’m not sure. It was one of those things that, because it was occurring along with the closing up of the West, it got more publicity than it probably deserved.
Did it take you long to research and write it?
I just sat down and wrote it in about three weeks.
I’ve written several books in three weeks. Now and then, if you have the right kind of energy and you just have the right kind of momentum, you can do a novel in a few weeks.
Your last few books have been nonfiction. Why did you take a break from writing novels?
I might just have been tired of fiction for the past few years. I’ve reviewed hundreds, if not thousands, of novels, and I burned out. I don’t want to read novels. I don’t care who they’re by, I don’t want to read them.
When did you stop reading fiction?
Probably about 20 years ago.
You own a big bookstore. Aren’t you worried that you’ll miss some great new novels?
It’s not a concern. I’ve got 200,000 books after all. I can find something to read, and it’s different every night. I’m very interested in World War I. I read a lot of biography. I have been reading a 12-volume diary by the English writer James Lees-Milne. I’m on the 12th volume.
You had the same publisher, Simon & Schuster, for decades, and published dozens of books with them, but this new novel is published by Liveright, a W.W. Norton imprint. Why did you decide to change publishers?
Well, I had written work for Simon & Schuster for more than 40 years. Partly it’s because my editor at that time was Michael Korda, and Michael Korda is in some kind of retirement. I also thought, maybe it’s just time for a change. Simon & Schuster is a little too fixated on “Lonesome Dove” and its sequels. Why not try somebody else? [Simon & Schuster declined to comment on Mr. McMurtry’s departure.]
You’ve written three sequels to “Lonesome Dove” and the original novel has more than four million copies in print. Do you still feel pressure to write another sequel?
I don’t feel that I need to write anything else like it. It’s done, it’s over with, and that’s too bad, because it made the publisher a good bit of money, but I’m through with “Lonesome Dove”-like stuff.
You’ve also written three memoirs—one about being a book seller, another about the literary life, and a third about your dealings with Hollywood. Are there any other aspects of your life that you plan to dissect in future memoirs?
Yes, I’m going to write a book about my life with women. A daring thing to do. My next book’s just about the women I know. I was going to call it “62 Women.” There are 62 mentioned in various ways, not all romantically. I’m going to have a lot of fun with that.
Write to Alexandra Alter at firstname.lastname@example.org