BUFFALO GALS by Larry McMurty
Kirkus Star


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The final years of Calamity Jane are the frame for this stately and powerful eulogy to the Old West, setting for two of McMurtxy's finest novels (Lonesome Dove, 1985; Anything for Billy, 1988). It's around 1890 and Calamity, though only 38, is next to dead, a bag lady in buckskin trading her memories of Wild Bill Hickok for drink or a place to sleep. Only her love for her faraway daughter (Calamity's letters to ""Janey"" regularly punctuate the text) and for her friends--beautiful madam Dora Dufran, aging mountain men Jim Ragg and Bartle Bone, ancient Indian No Ears--keeps Calamity going At first, McMurty's narrative mirrors his heroine's tiled wanderings--slowly, painstakingly shading in characters against the mournful twilight landscape of the dying West. But when Buffalo Bill Cody charges in to corral Calamity and the others for his gimmicky Wild West Show, spirits rise and the pace does too, with humor salted in as the ""living le-legends"" sail to England. There, while Calamity carouses in English drinking halls, Sitting Bull tries to organize a party of braves to hunt the animals in the London Zoo; Annie Oakley roundly outshoots England's top marksman; Bartle Bone marries a young English whore; and No Ears acquires a set of wax ears to replace the ones cut off by French traders in his youth. This general fling at happiness proves as shallow as Cody's show, however, for back in the States tragedy strikes marly all. Battle Bone loses his wife, and Jim Ragg and No Ears lose their lives, while Dora Dufran, after giving birth, succumbs to fever and also dies. The narrative turns darker still in the final pages as, in a flurry of letters, a lonely, dying Calamity confesses bitter and stunning truths about Hickok, her daughter, and herself. Though rich with memorable characters, not nearly as much fun to read as McMurtry's earlier, rousing Old West novels; but, after a slow start, still effectively melancholic and haunting, like watching flickering black-and-white footage of loved ones long gone.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1990
Publisher: Simon & Schuster