McMurtry Western

March 9, 2007 at 7:46 am | Posted in awards, postmodern, western | Leave a comment

McMurtry, L. (1990).Buffalo Girls.New York: Simon and Schuster.  

buffalo-girls-book.jpgAward Winning  Author  If you want to read a recent (1990+) western, Larry McMurtry’s Buffalo Girls (Winner of the Western Heritage Award)  is a natural choice.  McMurtry is an iconic contemporary writer in the Western genre, author to more than 20 books, 2 essay collections and over 30 screenplays,  Clad in jeans and cowboy hat, Texan McMurtry accepted the 2006 Golden Globe and Academy Awards as co-author of the screenplay  Brokeback Mountain, a breakout Western about Montana sheepwranglers who are secret gay lovers.  McMurtry’s novel Lonesome Dove won Western’s Spur Award (1985) and the 1986 Pulitzer Prize.  

BygoneWest   McMurtry is a masterful storyteller, weaving memorable characters into a narrative rich in authentic details about a bygone West. He is an unusual author of this genre because he uses satire and black humor to debunk myths of the romantic West. That said, my reading experience of McMurtry’s Buffalo Girls, was like showing up at a rowdy wedding reception when all that’s left are cake crumbs, strewn confetti and maudlin drunks. I did not enjoy reading the book, and would not recommend it because of its relentlessly depressing plot. However, for students of popular culture,  I feel it accurately captured the frontiersmen’s delight conquering the wild unknown and despair fighting loneliness, poverty and hostile elements.

In Buffalo Girls, McMurtry tells the story of the last days of the rough-n-ready West, combining characters who are real aging Western legends –Calamity Jane, Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill Cody– with a fictional ensemble of Western stock types including mountain men and Indians.  It is a sad, meandering tale about the characters’ roles as actors touring in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show sprinkled with reminiscences about “the good old days” of the open frontier.  

Post-Modern Western I’ve dubbed Buffalo Girls  a “post-modern” Western, for several reasons. The protagonist, Calamity Jane is an androgynous anti-hero. She’s an incorrigible drunk with a propensity for starting fights and exaggerating about past feats. Unlike the classic Western hero, Jane is a poor shot, inept camper, failed wife and mother whose glory days as a scout and solder’s nurse are long gone. Secondly, it’s hard to map this work into Western plot variations as defined by Berger (Popular Culture Genres, 1992). Since it falls beyond the “professional–hired gunfighter” stage, I’d propose to add a “professional celebrity or icon” stage. The characters are now Western stars re-enacting roles as sureshots or Indian fighters for an urban paying audience.  

Another post-modern motif is the sense of loss or passage. The frontiersmen ruefully regret their decimation of wildlife, so now a trapper has to visit a London zoo to see live beaver.  A final post-modern element is McMurtry’s unvarnished descriptions of the grit,  privations and stresses of mundane Western life. No romantic night under the stars for his cowboys. Instead, they wake up with spittle-frozen beards to roast a prairie dog with meat so tough it takes an hour per piece to chew. 

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