- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 10, 2006

TELEGRAPH DAYS

By Larry McMurtry

Simon & Schuster, $25, 289 pages

REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA

More than 20 years ago, when a friend who loved Larry McMurtry had a baby, I bought the author’s latest novel and took it over to “Booked Up,” the used bookstore he (and Marcia Carter) had on 31st just up from M Street in Georgetown, to get it inscribed. I told him my friend thought he wrote the most believable women characters of any contemporary writer. On hearing that, Mr. McMurtry looked up, grinned slowly, and drawled, “Well, I sure do like women.”

I’d always agreed with that opinion of Mr. McMurtry’s fictional women, from the sad mother-daughter team of “Terms of Endearment” to the loopy ladies of “Loop Group.” And so when I realized, just a few pages into “Telegraph Days,” that the main character, Nellie Courtright, was yet another feisty woman, in yet another Wild West setting, I looked forward to getting to know her. Alas, to borrow a word from the melodramas of the day, I was disappointed. To me, Ms. Courtright doesn’t sound right.

“I was twenty-two, kissable, and of an independent disposition,” she informs us on the novel’s second page. “My full name was Marie Antoinette Courtright, but everyone called me Nellie. Mother told me I got named after Marie Antoinette because Father happened to be reading about the French Revolution the night I was born — my own view is that he anticipated my yappi-ness and was secretly hoping the people would rise up and cut off my head.”

Before you get too far into the story, you begin to see Father’s point.

But Father is the one who created the problem for his children, Nellie and her 17-year-old brother Jackson, by botching his attempted suicide and managing to hang himself to death, thereby joining his late wife in the hereafter.

So Jackson builds a coffin while Nellie digs a grave, and when they’re done singing Amazing Grace and the two other songs they know, they take all that’s left — the family mule and a money belt full of double eagles that helped weigh their father down to his demise — and head for Rita Blanca some 30 miles across “No Man’s Land, a grassy part of the American West that, for the moment, no state claimed.”

The time is the end of the 19th century, post-Civil War, and the Wild West is a memory that’s about to become a show, thanks to Buffalo Bill Cody, who figures prominently in the book. The Indians are gone (so is Gen. Custer, just) and the gunfighters are about to follow.

The newly-orphaned Courtrights head for Rita Blanca, because the young sheriff there has already proposed to Nellie six times. She’s not too interested in him — his moustache tickles her when they kiss — but they’re fresh out of parents and better ideas. Nellie inveigles the sheriff to give Jackson a job as his deputy, and he settles in happily, sweeping out the jail, while Nellie finds lodging for herself in Mrs. Karoo’s boarding house, which gives the author the opportunity to introduce a whole new set of larger-than-life characters.

This is probably a good place to point out that two years ago, Larry McMurtry wrote an interesting nonfiction book about Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill Cody — “The Colonel and Little Missie: Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, and the Beginnings of Superstardom in America” — his thesis being they were the first two authentic American celebrities. What research he did for that book, in addition to the considerable body of knowledge he already has about this time and place in America, must have come in very handy when he sat down to write “Telegraph Days.”

The title refers both to the major mode of communication of the period in question and to the job Nellie appropriates for herself as the town’s telegrapher. The little shack from which she works serves as a focal point for all the news that’s fit to type and all the action that ensues. And there is more than enough of the latter.

It all begins on the day the notorious Yazee gang arrives and begins to shoot up the town, whereupon sheriff’s deputy Jackson Courtright steps out of the jail and within a matter of seconds shoots and kills all six of them. Nellie soon figures out that it was dumb luck, not skill, that prevailed: “I realized my brother had a big problem. He had economically killed the whole Yazee gang — six shots, six men — but now he couldn’t hit a crippled steer from thirty feet away.”

Nonetheless, Nellie, being Nellie, capitalizes on what she rightly senses is his imminent, if fleeting, fame, by writing her own first-hand account of the “battle.” But first she sends the news, via telegraph, to the newspapers.

After that it’s a parade of folks, known and unknown, good and bad, including the aforementioned Buffalo Bill — for whom Nellie goes to work as chief organizer of his Wild West shows — a journalist who becomes her lover (Nellie is nothing if not lusty), all of the Earp brothers, Wild Bill Hickock, Billy the Kid, and just about everybody but Annie Oakley. All of this is narrated by Nellie in a colorful, smart-alecky manner that serves Mr. McMurtry well but makes his main character, in my opinion, less memorable rather than more.

For example, when she finds the newspaper reporters milling about in the street while the sheriff is sleeping off a hangover, Nellie knows how to get their attention: “I didn’t hesitate. I grabbed a shotgun from Ted’s arsenal, went out into the street, and fired both barrels straight up into the air … ‘Nothing to be alarmed about gentlemen,’ I said. ‘I’m Marie Antoinette Courtright — call me Nellie for short — and you’ll all need to file your stories with me at the telegraph office, which is just up the street and will be open for business in ten minutes.’”

A little of this goes a long way, but “Telegraph Days” has a very great deal of it, far too much for this reader. After just a few chapters, I couldn’t shake the notion that in Nellie Courtright, Mr. McMurtry has created a woman who talks the way men wish women talked — some women, anyway — not the way they actually do talk. Behind her facade of femininity, Nellie is blunt to the point of being crude, and the result is a character who is not memorable. I know this is a farcical tale, and perhaps I should lighten up, but, hey, this is Larry McMurtry we’re talking about here!

John Greenya is a Washington writer.

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