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‘The Last Kind Words Saloon’

by Larry McMurtry

Liveright, 256 pp., $24.95

Larry McMurtry’s new novel revisits the greatest of his enduring subjects: the Old West, specifically its slow fade into a more settled time. (The prime example is his Pulitzer-winning “Lonesome Dove.”) The buffalo are gone, the fiercest Indians have been subdued, and huge cattle ranches are starting to encroach on the vast open plains.

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“The Last Kind Words Saloon” uses a number of real-life figures to tell its story. Among them are Wyatt Earp and his brothers; their pal Doc Holliday, the alcoholic dentist turned gambler and gunman; the great Comanche chief Quanah Parker; and Charlie Goodnight, a tough old cattle rancher who has appeared in previous McMurtry books.

As they did in real life, the Earp brothers — like many in their time and place — try their luck at a variety of temporary occupations, drifting as the need arises. That includes bartending, appearing in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show, and, almost by default, becoming lawmen.

There’s little of what you might call tight plotting here. The book is more a series of vignettes about Holliday and the Earps’ meanderings. They wind up in Tombstone, Ariz., and tangle with the nasty (and real-life) Clanton family. Inevitably, the story ends with the famous gunfight at the OK Corral, when the brothers and their pal face off against the Clantons.

Along the way, the focus remains on the friendship between the affable Holliday and Wyatt Earp, who is hardly whitewashed — he comes across as a testy, often unpleasant man who is not above hitting his common-law wife.

The book’s choppiness and abrupt ending — the gunfight takes up only a few pages — are jarring. This is presumably deliberate, considering it’s coming from such a gifted writer.

But the book is never dull, and it’s also very funny. As always, McMurtry’s characters are plain-spoken but subtle and full of dry humor. “The Last Kind Words Saloon” may be slim and less meaty than previous works — it’s no “Lonesome Dove” — but moseying along with McMurtry is always worthwhile.