Step right up for yet another Wild West show

Larry McMurtry's 27th novel is a critical yet loving tale of the old West.

Perhaps Larry McMurtry felt a creative surge when he shepherded Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain" into movie magic, a surge that carried over into his own fiction. McMurtry won an Oscar this year for the screenplay adaptation he wrote with Diana Ossana, but, before he reached the podium (in jeans and boots, no less), he had already put the finishing touches on his 27th and latest novel, Telegraph Days.

Ever prolific, McMurtry has focused as much on nonfiction works as he has on novels of late. And while he is incapable of writing fiction that lacks humor and spry dialogue, McMurtry has been wildly uneven during the past decade. Many of his recent novels felt hurried, incomplete.

With "Telegraph Days," a tale told by the spunky Nellie Courtright and spanning 50 years, he returns to form with his best work since "Anything for Billy" was published in 1988.

Like that novel, "Telegraph Days" deals with gunslingers, though from a female perspective. Few male writers can match McMurtry for his ability to understand and conjure strong female characters. Here, 22-year-old Nellie Courtright is from a patrician Virginia clan. With her 17-year-old brother, Jackson, she finds herself in Oklahoma in the 1870s, a time when the territory is known as No Man's Land and filled with the dusty, drab Old West reality so rarely glimpsed in movies and TV, with HBO's "Deadwood" notably excepted. She's whip smart and tart-tongued, too. Of the female condition, she quips, "The life of women is mostly interruption - at least that's how I experienced it."

Forget whoa, Nellie. It's more like, you go, Nellie. Nellie and Jackson have discovered their father's corpse as the novel begins (the Courtright patriarch has hanged himself in a tattered barn), the last in a series of family deaths on their westward trek that numbers both parents and six siblings. Nellie sums matters up in blunt fashion: "Father's tongue was black as a boot."

Thus begins a series of adventures taking our narrator from No Man's Land to Dodge City - and, later, to Buffalo Bill Cody's ranch in North Platte, Neb., and on to blood-drenched Tombstone, Ariz.

Even as Nellie encounters legends of the West and other historical personages (Cody, Wild Bill Hickok, Gen. George Custer, Jesse James, Billy the Kid, William Tecumseh Sherman and the Earp brothers all make memorable cameos), she takes delight in stripping away their glamour.

McMurtry has long made deconstruction of the Western myth a major theme of his works and he does it again here, reiterating the senseless spontaneous violence, relentless daily trials and, yes, the constant crafting of apocrypha for commercial consumption.

A pivotal moment (and example) arrives early in "Telegraph Days" when the flirtatious Nellie helps Jackson land a job as a deputy sheriff. Soon after, in a moment of blind beginner's luck, Jackson guns down six members of an outlaw gang and gains instant notoriety. This glory endures despite his subsequent inability to shoot even tin cans.

None of which stops the local general-store owner from opening a "museum" commemorating the event - or Nellie from penning what will later become a popular dime-novel account of the episode.

As Nellie puts it, "It takes a true businessman to look at six bloody, bedraggled, filthy corpses, their eyes open to the heaven they wouldn't be going to, and see a museum."

Some of the novel's most entertaining moments involve Nellie's long-running relationship with Cody, a restless publicity hound and entrepreneur who encounters his future business adviser when she is manning the telegraph booth in the run-down, future Oklahoma town her brother has just saved from outlaws.

Though Nellie and Buffalo Bill indulge in flirtatious banter and occasional canoodling, theirs is a largely platonic friendship centered on his fame and her organized, street-savvy business acumen.

She spends several years working for Cody, who dreams of someday launching a touring Wild West Show (which, of course, he does, playing to sellout crowds for years in America and Europe). Even after leaving Cody's operation, Nellie retains her affection for Buffalo Bill. She telegraphs the news of his death to the world from the Denver hotel where Cody dies. "I had lost my truest friend," Nellie recalls.

The wistful closing chapters - which center on Cody's death and Nellie's affluent decades in southern California at the dawn of the movie age - speak to McMurtry's fascination with mythmaking.

"...The thing to do with the Wild West was sell it to those who hadn't lived in it, or even to some who had," Nellie tells us in her inimitable voice. "Just sell it all: the hats, the boots, the spurs, the six-guns, the buffalo and elk and antelope, the longhorn cattle and the cowboys who herded them, the gunslingers and the lawmen, the cattle barons and the gamblers, the whores, the railroad men, and the Indians too, of course, if you could find them and persuade them, as Cody had."

Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.

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