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Lighter Fare from a Great Western Author

  • Sep 18, 2011
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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.

Stuart W. Mirsky
author of The King of Vinland's Saga

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September 18, 2011
Great review, thanks for sharing!
About the reviewer
Stuart W. Mirsky ()
Ranked #231
I'm a retired bureaucrat (having served, most recently, as an Assistant Commissioner in amunicipal agency in a major Northeastern American city). In 2002 I took an early retirement to pursue a lifelong … more
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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 Panhandle, to remake themselves. Jackson is made a deputy sheriff and Nellie takes over the telegraph office. In short order, Jackson shoots down an entire gang of outlaws, and Nellie promptly writes it up to launch a lucrative literary career. Other adventures await: she becomes manager of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, boldly faces down Jesse James's attempt to rob her and witnesses the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. She becomes mayor of Rita Blanca, a mother of six and, later, friends with Lillian Gish and William B. Mayer. Beautiful and sexually insatiable, Nellie is a witty, sophisticated, accomplished, cunning, impudent and highly improbable woman—more than a match for any man she meets, which isn't saying much, since they're all idiots. She also is little more than a reworking of several previous McMurtry heroines, especiallyThe Berrybender Narratives'Tasmin. This tale is contrived, episodic and lacks cohesion, and its constant comedy is self-conscious. But most readers won't be able to help cracking a smile over McMurtry's 38th book, as purposely over-the-top as an episode ofSouth Park.(June)
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