McMurtry revisits OK Corral with new telling

THE LAST KIND WORDS SALOON. By Larry McMurtry. Liveright Publishing Corp. 198 pages. $24.95.

Larry McMurtry describes this retelling of the gunfight at the OK Corral as a ballad in prose.

So this is not a history lesson. The truth of that gunfight was lost long ago in the fog of legend. The story has been told and retold, but not like this. McMurtry's characters, each with their own piece of the ballad, move toward the famous confrontation in Tombstone. But, boy, do we take some detours along the way. These are McMurtry detours though, as only he can write them, so we keep turning the pages.

The story begins across the street from The Last Kind Words Saloon as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday take stock of an approaching cattle drive in the distance. Earp, a man of few words, is always ready for a fight, except with his wife, Jessie, who often leaves him much befuddled.

The tubercular and cheerfully homicidal Holliday is a talkative dentist always on the lookout for potential customers, and something to take a shot at.

Now, mix in cattlemen, Indians, prostitutes, cowboys, journalists and even a rich Scottish dandy with dreams of building the nation's biggest cattle empire, and you have the makings of a fine Western tale. But what's all that have to do with the OK Corral? A lot of it doesn't. But you won't mind a bit.

McMurtry is a master of portraying that flimsy divide between life and death and how easy it is to step through. That happens often enough in this ballad of the Old West, just never quite how you expect. Whatever their wild and looping routes, the Earp brothers Wyatt, Morgan and Earl; Doc Holliday; Ike and Billy Clanton; Frank and Tom McLaury, all make their way to that dusty corral and immortality: as heroes, villains or something in between.

Years after the gunfight, a rising journalist by the name of Nellie Courtright follows up on the heroes of the OK Corral, putting an interesting spin on the wisdom of seeking out aging legends.

Any fan of Larry McMurtry will find this book fine reading. Anyone who's not a fan, just might become one.

Reviewer Tony Brown is an editor at The Post and Courier