McMurtry's latest skips through western lore with a wry smile. Marie Antoinette "Nellie" Courtright and her brother, Jackson, bereft of family after their Virginia clan dies off one by one, arrive in Rita Blanca in 1876, in what would become the Oklahoma … see full wiki
In this nicely written, albeit light, episodic tale of the old West, heroine Nellie Courtwright and her kid brother Jackson make their way into the tiny frontier town of Rita Blanca after the suicide death of their despondent father, a member of the southern gentry who has failed to remake his life on the frontier and killed himself because of it.
In Rita Blanca, brother Jackson begins a mostly uneventful career as a sheriff's deputy (he will have one great success early on, never to be repeated) while Nellie parlays her native smarts into becoming the town's telegraph operator, a writer of Western tales and, not long after that, manager of Buffalo Bill's business affairs in the Nebraska town of North Platte. Along the way Nellie seeks out sex where she can find it while observing, with a sometimes jaundiced eye, the comings and goings of many of the West's biggest names in that era. She's known George Armstrong Custer and Wild Bill Hickock (both of whom fancied her) when the tale opens, and goes on to meet the Earp brothers, Jesse James (in a botched railroad robbery), Billy the Kid and General William Tecumseh Sherman. It's a small world out there in the Old West of Rita Blanca we discover.
Of course there's Buffalo Bill, too, for whom she has the hots because of his boundless energy and handsome head, when he abruptly comes to Rita Blanca looking for Nellie's "famous" kid brother, the deputy who singlehandedly gunned down the Yazee Gang. There's no real story here, just a lot of mostly interesting episodes strung together, as it is with most of us in real life anyway -- though Nellie has the marked advantage of interacting with so many legendary figures, a conceit found mainly in fiction.
The book falters midway, however, with Nellie's Buffalo Bill period being especially unengaging. But it picks up again on our gal's return to Rita Blanca and, later, her decision to move on to Tombstone just in time to catch the gunfight between the Earps and the Clantons and McClaurys at the O.K. Corral. That turns out to have been a big mess anyway, with lots of wild shooting and some dead and wounded left over and long term grudges to be worked out off stage. But after Tombstone, when our heroine moves on to California, the story takes a more prosaic turn as Nellie weds, has some kids and ends up in the arms of a nascent Hollywood film industry, writing film scenarios for early impressarios of the silver screen like D. W. Griffith and hobnobbing it with the likes of Mary Pickford.
This book is lightweight fare for Larry McMurtry who's done some really fine Western stuff -- enjoyable enough to read most of the time, but petering out at the end. And frankly, writing this review now, only a day after I'd finished the book, I find I can't quite conjure up in my memory how it actually ended. That got to say something.