Many have told the story of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, in heroic verse or in violent, romantic images on film. It was a defining moment in the bloody, good-vs.-evil history of the Old West.
Trust Larry McMurtry to give the classic showdown between Earps and Clantons a more laconic telling, at once comic and tragic. There is no “High Noon” drama, no terrible sense of inevitability to the coming of the gunfight, which unfolds rather accidentally, much like an earlier cattle stampede that took the life of a 16-year-old cowboy. “Life was a peril,” McMurtry writes, economically summing up that incident and anticipating the next, “purely a peril.”
Readers who admire McMurtry’s spare scene-setting and sharp, jousting dialogue will enjoy this, his first novel in five years. The banter between Wyatt Earp and his dentist-gunslinger friend Doc Holliday recalls the slights and digs exchanged by Gus and Woodrow, the ex-Texas Rangers who made McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove” so memorable.
Those who fault McMurtry for seemingly dashing off quick-read titles since “Lonesome Dove” may find the characters and landscape here also thinly drawn, the story line contrived. It certainly is a brief story, told in the author’s signature page-and-a-half chapters and easily read in a sitting. But it is funny, shocking, illuminating and Tombstone lyrical.
In addition to Wyatt and Doc, the novel is peopled by other characters who are flawed, surprising and a little bizarre, including an English lord, his shrewd and beautiful Turkish companion and William Howard Russell, the famous war correspondent of the London Times (who in real life covered the U.S. Civil War). We also have whores who are admired as well as lusted after, cameo appearances by Buffalo Bill Cody and Billy the Kid, Indians who display varying degrees of nobility and savagery (not unlike the white characters) and a female telegraph operator who turns her report on the death of Custer into a newspaper career. The novel ends with her account of visiting Wyatt Earp and his wife, Jessie, long after the Clanton unpleasantness.
“The famous hero of the O.K. Corral was now a rheumy-eyed old man who spent his days spitting tobacco into a coffee can,” according to Nellie Courtright’s story for the New York Sun. There was no point in asking Wyatt about the famous shootout, Jessie told her, because he didn’t remember much, including Jessie herself half the time.
McMurtry calls this novel “a ballad in prose whose characters are afloat in time,” and he says he had the great western film director John Ford in mind when he wrote it. Ford “famously said that when you had to choose between history and legend, print the legend. And so I’ve done.”
It is a legend unlike those you may have read or seen before, however. And the plain, tawdry grit and gray of the people and the story, the arbitrariness of act and purpose, of life and death, fame and memory, makes one suspect it is closer to truth than, say, Kevin Costner’s “Wyatt Earp.”
Chuck Haga is a former Star Tribune reporter now living and writing in Grand Forks, N.D.