Some authors move their characters around like chess pieces, constraining them entirely to the service of the plot. Others wind their characters up, let them go and see what they do on their own. While it can result in an engrossing novel full of memorable personages and surprising events, this approach can also produce an aimless character sketch.
In his latest novel, "The Last Kind Words Saloon," Larry McMurtry has adopted the second strategy. Unfortunately, this tale of 1870s Texas never coalesces into a story. Worse, Mr. McMurtry fails to give his characters life, and they end up being little more than stock figures in a picaresque horse opera.
"The Last Kind Words Saloon" must have seemed like a promising project at one time. Most of the characters are actual historical figures. Some, like Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and Buffalo Bill Cody, are well known. Others will be familiar only to those with knowledge of the Old West: Charles Goodnight, Bose Ikard, Quanah Parker.
The story, such as it is, vaguely centers on the closing of the frontier and takes place mostly in one of the most difficult and unpromising regions of the West: the Texas panhandle. Flat and treeless, windy, both brutally hot and frigid, the Panhandle was where the cattle baron Goodnight chose to establish his massive longhorn ranch.
Mr. McMurtry has been chronicling Texas for decades now and the strength of the book is his deep knowledge of the land and history. He vividly captures the hardships of life on the Llano Estacado (the plain region) and the perils of the beautiful caprock canyonlands marking the Llano's northern border.
The remoteness of civilization and authority extends even to borders. Long Grass, the camp where most of the novel takes place, "might be in Texas," but nobody is quite sure. What is clear is that the plain is no place for women. Many years before, Goodnight had been in the search party that reclaimed Cynthia Ann Parker after 24 years of captivity among the Comanches. (The film "The Searchers" is based on Parker's story.)
Lost without a people or a home, separated from her Comanche son Quanah, Parker died not long after her "rescue." Goodnight's own wife Molly feels almost equally out of place in this untamed territory. Although they are the wealthiest people in three counties, Goodnight and Molly sleep on cots in a tent, and she wonders why she is there.
To be frank, though, few McMurtry novels are congenial to their women. Female characters tend to be prostitutes, conniving shrews or neglected wives. "The Last Kind Words Saloon" has one of the first type, and two of the third. That's about it for the ladies in this book.
The male characters aren't fleshed out much better. The book ostensibly centers on Earp and Holliday, who start out in Long Grass, then briefly perform in a Buffalo Bill show in Denver before winding up in Tombstone, Arizona, at that famed gunfight at the OK Corral. Both are laconic and taciturn, like good frontiersmen.
Mr. McMurtry has done magic with the friendship between two aging cowboys before. Gus and Call of "Lonesome Dove" are one of the most memorable pairs in American literature. But here, Earp and Holliday are ciphers, distinguishable only in that Earp is the more violent of the two.
Mr. McMurtry has fictionalized historical figures before in "Anything for Billy," "Buffalo Girls" and "Pretty Boy Floyd." Those novels give full-length, rounded treatments of their subjects. But here, the characters feel like stick figures who depend on our previous knowledge of them to make them interesting.
Greg Barnhisel is an associate professor of English at Duquesne University.