Such is the life and death of a good cowboy.
The Last Kind Words Saloon by Larry McMurtry is a Western novel that features such characters as Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday, and Charles Goodnight. I’ve been a fan of the Wyatt Earp mythology ever since I saw the movie Tombstone. Larry McMurtry wrote Lonesome Dove, one of my favorite books. I was pretty excited to read The Last Kind Words Saloon.
It’s a weird little book.
It doesn’t have so much a plot as a series of dream-like episodes that are kind of tied together. Everything feels a little “off” from reality, as if the actions are taking place in someone’s dreams about the Old West mythos. Sometimes the characters are portrayed as their Legendary selves, not developed characters so much as Jungian archetypes charging out of the collective unconscious. Sometimes the characters are portrayed as their Historical selves, as being meaner, more violent, and dumber than they are commonly portrayed in pop culture. The book completely depends upon the reader’s knowledge of the reputations of the characters — there isn’t much character development within the text itself — and then twists and inspects and interrogates and attacks those reputations.
Many readers may be turned off by the lack of a traditional narrative structure. Those looking for something really weird will also be disappointed. It ain’t Tombstone mixed with Twin Peaks. The stuff that happens in the novel isn’t supernatural, bonkers, or ridiculously confusing. It just feels like four or five short stories had been stir-fried into a novel, with jarringly different tones, themes, and goals.
I read the book pretty quickly, but I’ve been struggling with its meaning. I felt as if a comedian whom I usually find funny told a joke and I didn’t laugh. Was it a bad joke? Did I just not get it? It’s an awkward feeling.
So I didn’t love The Last Kind Words Saloon. But I gave it 4 stars. Why?
It’s the collective whole, the POINT of it that I struggled with. However, if I completely ignore a search for a grand unified theory, a MEANING for the novel, and just focus on individual portions….I like those portions a lot. Again, I have no idea if or why or how those portions fit together, but they were fun and/or interesting to read. It never felt like a chore to read this book. It wasn’t a long slog of impossible dialogue and purple prose. Ultimately, I have to say that, while I didn’t love the novel like I expected to, given its pedigree and subject matter, I liked it quite a bit. Keep your expectations low, and you might like it too.
My rating: 4 stars