This latest work from McMurtry has gotten some mixed reviews, and I suppose that’s what I intend to do as well. As the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Lonesome Dove, McMurtry surely knows how to spin a tale, and his writing remains tight, his pacing solid and dialog oftentimes delightful. But what in the hell are Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday doing in this novel?!
The characters are solid, believable as far as it goes, except that they bear no – NO resemblance to their historical counterparts. McMurtry goes so far as to put them in Tombstone and in tense relationship with the Clantons and McLaurys, and yet there is no gunfight at the OK Corral, only a few hard words.
The Last Kind Words Saloon is exactly why I have pause concerning historical fiction in which famous figures serve as the benchmarks or guideposts for a fictive tale. If you put a famous historical figure in your novel, he or she had better pay off for those history buffs who will read your work specifically because their favorite historical character is in it, and an author who plays fast and loose with genuine history does so at his peril. McMurtry knows this; his previous books (even Lonesome Dove) often featured real historical characters, but they were strictly walk-on parts, which kept them believable and – here is the important part – didn’t distract from the story McMurtry was telling. In Kind Words, the historical figures are the protagonists, and it is highly distracting that their narrative arc wholly ignores their actual histories. As a reader, I continued to expect the plot to weave itself into the real history at some point, but alas, the book ended without that payoff.
The only exception to what I’m formulating as a rule here is when authors write speculative fiction that consciously subverts the actual history, a “what if Hitler didn’t die in his bunker” kind of scenario. I believe many history buffs give this a pass because the novel does not pass itself off as a real history of any kind, but McMurtry doesn’t give his readers any guideposts in this way, leaving them to muddle through the book on their own.
The books is worth a perusal on its own merit, if only the reader can trick themselves into substituting “Bill” and “Ted” for the historical names as these original characters sally forth on their Big Adventure.