McMurtry's West is no improvement on the legends

October 28, 1990|By DAN VITALE

Buffalo Girls.

Larry McMurtry.

Simon & Schuster.

351 pages. $19.95.

In his fourth novel since the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Lonesome Dove," Larry McMurtry once again seeks to lay bare the harsh realities that served as fodder for the mythology of the Old West, continuing work he performed most recently in "Anything for Billy" (1988), a retelling of the story of Billy the Kid.

According to Mr. McMurtry, the process that turned the denizens of the West into pageant heroes -- jazzing them up for the purposes of popular entertainment -- obscured the pain of their actual lives. But "Anything for Billy" went too far in the other direction: All cardboard and spittle, the book was more an outline than a story.

Now Mr. McMurtry is trying it again. The cast of "Buffalo Girls" includes Calamity Jane, Buffalo Bill Cody, Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull, among others. But while the new novel is more enjoyable than "Anything for Billy," it again has the feel of something parboiled.

The time is the late 1800s. The buffalo are gone, and the beaver, whose pelts made the fortunes of so many enterprising trappers, are on the way out. Martha Jane Canary, a k a Calamity, spends her time within shouting distance of Miles City, Mont., boozing and fighting. In spare moments she writes letters to her daughter, Janey, offspring of a love affair with Wild Bill Hickok.

Janey is being raised in Springfield, Ill., by a man named Burke -- her stepfather and Calamity's nominal husband -- who possesses the means to support Janey in citified splendor. Calamity's letters appear throughout the novel, filled with loneliness over the death of friends and grief over the passing of her roughneck way of life.

The story proceeds episodically, following Calamity into Wyoming to meet up with her mountain-man friends Jim Ragg and Bartle Bone and an ancient Indian, No Ears, named for a wound he got at age 10 when his tribe was attacked by French traders. Eventually finding themselves at loose ends, the four grudgingly join Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and travel to England to perform for the queen.

Mr. McMurtry gets his best effects in these scenes, juxtaposing his crusty pioneers with Dickensian waifs, Annie Oakley with a haughty aristocrat, and Sitting Bull with such modern inventions as the zoo and the wax museum.

No Ears is the most affecting figure in the book, mostly likely because he appears to be entirely fictional -- the only character Mr. McMurtry has taken the trouble to imagine fully from the inside out.

In fact, in the last 20 pages, he gives up dramatization almost completely, piling Calamity's last letters to Janey one upon the next in a leap of sudden revelations that leads us to abandon at one stroke much of what we thought we had learned about Martha Jane in the preceding pages. Mr. McMurtry obviously intends these shocks as the ultimate corrective, a final reckoning with the stories that have grown up around Calamity's sad life. But this act of narrative bad faith frustrates the reader and calls the handling of his material into question.

Surely there is a need for the kind of task Mr. McMurtry set himself in "Anything for Billy" and now "Buffalo Girls." But the literature of historical revisionism has its own conventions, and Mr. McMurtry so far has not avoided them. He relies on sheer deviation from the received version of the West to hold his readers' interest. It doesn't work. It's one thing to tell the truth and quite another to make the truth tell.

Mr. Vitale is a writer living in Iowa City.

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