While other authors are content to recite myths about how the West was won, Texas’s Larry McMurtry keeps asking whether the frontier was ever tamed at all. For better and worse, he sounds downright biblical when imagining what it is that’s lost in the mythology. McMurtry’s 23rd novel, Boone’s Lick, is as dense as a psalm and as misty as folklore — a tall tale of life in the American wild.
Whores, preachers, heathens, cavalrymen, Wild Bill Hickok himself — all the actors in this gory farce are observed by Sherman Cecil, nicknamed Shay, a 15-year-old growing up lonesome in Boone’s Lick, Mo., 14 months after the end of the Civil War. As the story opens, the Cecil family — including Ma, the four kids, drunken Uncle Seth — has been ”living on old dry mush for about three weeks.” After Ma shoots a stallion that the town sheriff happens to be riding (she mistook it for an elk, she says), their diet broadens to include horsemeat.
Sheriff Baldy had dropped by simply to start up a posse and go clean out the Millers, a gang literally engaged in highway robbery. Come morning, the boys head out. Fog. A ridge. An ambush. ”’I don’t think anybody’s behind—,’ the sheriff said, before a bullet splatted into him and knocked him off his horse.” That sentence is a typical Boone’s Lick paragraph: terse, vernacular, vivid. The simple style of Shay’s narrative voice — its striking spareness — lends the force of fable to a story that’s otherwise too narrow to accommodate its teeming cast of characters. McMurtry originally intended Boone’s Lick as the opening volume of a series, then revised his idea, and the truncation shows. In the course of the posse business alone, we get a sketch of Wild Bill, a flurry of familial squabbling, two or three brilliant action scenes, a coming-of-age short story, and the revelation that the town whore is Ma’s half sister. Is this a novel or a 287-page cattle drive?
By the midpoint of the book, it’s goodbye to Missouri. Ma wants to head west and find her husband, Dick, who hasn’t been seen in ages, and the reader heads into territory that has worked better elsewhere… if only in the novels of such aces as John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy. As the Cecils move out to Fort Laramie and Fort Reno and Fort Phil Kearny, encountering blizzards and grizzlies and scalpers, we feast on the snatches of reshaped folklore McMurtry serves but we starve for a story worthy of his scope. On the road, the family meets a priest called Father Villy, who’s traveling to minister to the Siberians, and a Shoshone Indian named Charlie Seven Days, who’s searching for the missing son of Sacagawea. On the Missouri River, Grandpa gets pitched overboard and disappears. On the whole, McMurtry never weaves these and other marvelous strands into a grand plot.
Though Boone’s Lick lacks the proportions its epic setting suggests, at least there’s fine poetry on the human scale. ”This morning,” Shay tells us, ”I got a kind of lonely feeling as I was walking down to the lots. The lonely feeling stayed with me all through my chores, although it was a lovely morning.” As in The Last Picture Show and of course Lonesome Dove, loneliness is McMurtry’s main theme. From Wild Bill playing solitaire in a crowded bar to Shay’s Pa seeking comfort in the wilds of Wyoming, everyone here must immediately deal with ultimate isolation. Some toughen up. Some are run over.
Bearded prophets, fearsome skies, rough justice, long hauls — this could be the Old West or the Old Testament. And in the Gospel according to McMurtry, is there much difference? The first paragraph of Boone’s Lick trumpets Uncle Seth’s conviction that ”bad things mostly happen on cloudy days”; the last describes a body buried ”while that great power moon, like a white sun, shone on the living and the dead.” That sums up Shay’s overarching cornpone philosophy, and it’s unclear to what extent the author means to ironize it. But throughout this stark, bright novel, McMurtry is strongest when he finds God in the details and finds Him heading into the sunset along with the scared and half-savage pioneers. B