Sunday, May 25, 2014

Westerns ("The Last Kind Words Saloon" by Larry McMurtry)

On an unassuming Wednesday morning in 1881, nine men--three sets of brothers, an unarmed ranch-hand from Mississippi, and a dentist--walked out into the streets of Tombstone, Arizona, and engaged in a shootout that lasted 30 seconds. When the firing ended, three of the men--Ike Clayton, Tom McLaury, and Frank McLaury--were dead, all of them outlaws. Two more men--the marshall and his assistant--were wounded, though not fatally. And two others--Wyatt Earp, brother to the marshall and his deputy, and Doc Holliday, one of Wyatt Earp's only friends--would become famous because of it. In fact, this one moment would come characterize the unsettled West as a place of common violence, lawlessness, and untamed brutish antagonism, defining an entire era in American history as something befitting the Hollywood depictions that were only decades away. By 1890--less than ten years after the shootout--all but two of the survivors would themselves be dead, either at the hands of other men or, in the case of Doc Holliday, tuberculosis. Virgil Earp, disabled by a gunshot to the arm almost exactly two months after the shootout, would die in 1905, and his brother Wyatt would pass away in 1929 at the age of 80, a senile old man living in a Los Angeles apartment with his third wife. It was there, in the heart of the burgeoning American cinema, that Earp would consult with the very same industry that would one day transform him into a caricature of himself:  an ironic end to a man redefined in a blink of an eye, his legacy forged from shadows into reality.

Larry McMurtry, perhaps the more eminent Western writer working in America today, has written his most recent book about Wyatt and Doc. And of the nearly 200 pages that make up The Last Kind Words Saloon, the infamous occurrence at the OK Corral occupies just nine sentences at the end of the final chapter. On its surface, this event--the sole moment for which both men are today remembered--should be the focus of any study of Earp and Holliday; in McMurtry's hands, it is little more than an afterthought, and rightly so. Enough has been written about the mythologized men of Tombstone, he seems to be saying. Instead, he wants to imagine the men as they really were--not historically, mind you, but symbolically. In McMurtry's sparse, almost barren prose, Earp and Holliday--both of whom were in their thirties at the time--are exorcised from what they've since become and inhabited by the souls of aged porch-sitters, as though they are two old men who'd seen enough of the West to know more about the world around them than almost anyone else.

Except that, when the two men are not engaged in seemingly pointless conversations, they are behaving like immature teenagers aspiring to be much more:  they join Wild Bill Cody's traveling show and fail miserably, unable to handle or shoot their weapons, and boring the crowd; they line up empty bottles behind a bar to practice their skills, at which they are embarrassingly bad; they express befuddlement over the local whorehouse's anatomical discount; they have troubles talking with women, and Earp not only punches his wife with frequency but cries afterward, ashamed; and so on. Both men are pulled in opposing directions, first by the images they have of themselves as tough gunfighters, and second by their total incompetence. When they sit on their various porches throughout McMurtry's novel, they are like children at play, their audience little more than each other; when they are forced to act, their performances come crashing down around them, and they are helpless, so much so that when the infamous shootout finally arrives, it is rendered in such unadorned prose--nine short, adjective-free sentences, as though drawn from a procedural report--that it's a shocking moment of awareness. The children have been jarred from their reverie, this time for good--this time with blood.

Which is McMurtry's point. His novel is not a celebration of the West or an appreciation of the men who inhabited it. Instead, this is an anti-Western, an attempt to depict the West not as it was but what we've made it into--namely, a fantasy of raging machismo, loose women, alcohol flowing like rivers, and gunfights abounding. Strip away the romantic adrenaline from the one remembered event in the lives of both Holliday and Earp, and we are left with two irresponsible young boys in a world of other young boys, all of them parading around as elders of the West.* And when we strip away the fictions of the West from our modern depictions of it--the high-noon duels, the desperadoes and bar-maids, the Indian attacks, guns that are ever-reliable and always shooting straight--we see just why this one simple embellishment has become such an important part of our country's narrative:  it gives us permission to see ourselves as the gruff young country that has still not completely reformed itself, the rebellious young thing in a world of elders who can still outgun them. We can think of ourselves as tough, confident, and ruthless people. We can anoint ourselves sheriffs over any situation, claim any place or person as our own, can kill or pardon as we see fit, based on our own unspoken conscience. Others will abide by us, will revere and even fear us for what they know of us. We are the wild, untamed millions; when other nations relate their histories across the millennia, relate stories of endless wars and gruesome revolutions, we can think back to our uncivilized early years and be among them. And yet, this image is based on little more than a thirty-second scene, which has somehow been transformed by time and human intervention into a full-fledged play bearing little resemblance to the source materials.

The title of McMurtry's novel comes from a saloon sign that Wyatt Earp's brother Warren hauls around throughout much of the book; it is the name of his establishment in Long Grass, Texas, and when the Earps move across the undefined borders of the new American territories, Warren takes it with him, constantly in search of a new place to call his own, to adorn with his sign. He never does find a permanent saloon, and in the novel's epilogue, a reporter visits the ailing and elderly Wyatt Earp in his Los Angeles apartment. His wife tells the similarly aged reporter to not bother with questions about the gunfight, saying, "Wyatt don't remember much--there's days when he barely remembers me." On his front lawn, topping off a stack of old tires, is his brother's sign, beaten down by time but still in tact. The reporter offers to buy it, but Earp's wife refuses, giving her the sign for free. "Warren Earp drug it around all over the place," she says, adding, "We never did know what he meant by it." Warren's sign was, simply said, a promise that somewhere in the strange and uncharted West there would be a place for him. As the novel closes, the sign and Wyatt Earp are one in the same--two small, forgotten things stuck out of time, still searching for a home, for a reality in which they can simply be themselves and nothing more.

*The only true "old man" in the novel--the head of the Clanton outlaws--is actually referred to as Old Man Clanton in his various chapters, though he is quickly shot and killed by unknown assailants.