The prolific Larry McMurtry has written essays, screenplays, memoirs and 27 novels, including the fabulous Lonesome Dove. In all that work McMurtry has probably written no more than a dozen or so bad paragraphs, and his writing about the American West usually offers a compelling blend of insight and humor. So even a relatively minor work like The Colonel and Little Missie, McMurtry's study of the celebrity of Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley, gives reason to sit up and pay attention.

Buffalo Bill Cody was an extraordinary figure who, in McMurtry's view, was America's first superstar. Annie Oakley, who shared the stage with Cody in his Wild West Show, was the second. Of the two, Cody was the more outgoing and flamboyant. As an Indian scout he knew George Armstrong Custer, won and then lost a Congressional Medal of Honor (turns out he wasn't actually in the U.S. military at the time, which is a requirement), and, McMurtry writes, received major fame for the minor role he played in the Indian wars. To the end of his life, Cody cut a smashing figure on horseback. His adventures, real and imagined, were the subject of an incredible 1,700 dime novels. Many of the signature exploits of his life what McMurtry calls the "tropes" formed the centerpiece of Cody's 32-year career as a showman. Casting a friendly but skeptical eye on these legends, McMurtry presents with great economy a fascinating portrait of a rather complex man.

Annie Oakley occupies a much smaller part of McMurtry's narrative, mainly because she was less knowable. She was reserved, modest to the point of requiring a female embalmer, and so frugal that many [Wild West] troopers believed that she lived off the lemonade Cody . . . served for free. She grew up in grinding poverty in Darke County, Ohio, but rarely spoke of her past, devoting herself instead to becoming a consummate performer.

Good novelist that he is, McMurtry leaves the mysteries of these two engaging personalities intact. He suggests rather than defines how it was they seized the public's imagination and love in their day, and why they should remain of interest today.

 

comments powered by Disqus