Wednesday, July 06, 2005

McMurtry finds Cody was a coda to the West that wasn't

Larry McMurtry's 'The Colonel and Little Missie'

Larry McMurtry is probably Texas' best-known literary celebrity, having been thrust into the limelight way back in 1971 when the movie adaptation of "The Last Picture Show" was nominated for eight Oscars (and won two). He became a permanent fixture in the firmament in 1989, when more than 125 million people watched the television adaptation of "Lonesome Dove."

So it's no surprise that he would want to tackle the topic of celebrity, as he does in his latest book, "The Colonel and Little Missie: Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, and the Beginnings of Superstardom in America." Here he offers up a dual portrait of William Frederick Cody, proprietor and namesake of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, which ran for over 30 years, from 1886-1916, and his greatest star, the sharpshooter Annie Oakley.

McMurtry has spent much of his career deconstructing the mythology of the American West, and there is no more abiding mythmaker than Cody. To this day Cody, with his fringed buckskin jacket, swooping mustache and rifle casually cradled behind his shoulders, remains one of the most enduring icons of the old West.

In "The Colonel and Little Missie," McMurtry draws on scholarly and historical sources to search for the truth behind the fiction that Cody portrayed on stage to the delight of millions of Americans and Europeans. McMurtry argues that Cody was "probably the most famous American of his day," adding that he was "easily more famous than any President, more famous even than Theodore Roosevelt."

He points out that Cody and his exploits -- which included claims to making the third longest run on the short-lived Pony Express, killing numerous Indian leaders (one in revenge for the murder of Custer), winning a Congressional Medal of Honor for his service to the army and slaughtering more than 4,000 Plains buffalo -- fed a need back East for a depiction of the West as a ruthless and unforgiving place full of colorful characters, adventure and death-defying acts of bravery.

Of course, all of this occurred at a time when the frontier was largely settled, the Indian nations were subdued and the railroads brought the reality of the West within the grasp of any New Yorker with the inclination to make her way across the Mississippi and see for herself.

Cody created what amounted to the first massive touring road show, incorporating Indians, horses, vaqueros and trick ropers into a series of tableaus that depicted many of the great events from his life. McMurtry determines much of it was exaggerated and a good deal of it was pure hokum.

"Somehow Cody succeeded in taking a very few elements of Western life -- Indians, buffalo, stagecoach, and his own superbly mounted self -- and creating an illusion that successfully stood for a reality that had been almost wholly different," McMurtry writes.

On the other hand, Annie Oakley, a stoic girl from Cincinnati who became a sharpshooter in order to support herself by hunting game as a teenager, really could shoot. She did, though, cheat a bit, using birdshot rather than bullets to ensure that her targets, often glass balls, shattered in a compelling fashion.

Still, for all of its fascinating factoids -- McMurtry's birdshot, as it were -- "The Colonel and Little Missie" misses the mark. For starters, the author never gets around to recreating an actual show, much less describing how it must have felt to sit in the audience and witness a phalanx of Indians in war bonnets whooping and thundering in on their spotted ponies or to watch the petite Oakley popping off pigeons in rapid succession.

This kind of narration is sorely missed; if you're going to deconstruct someone's hard-earned mythology, you should at least give the mythmaking its due.

The narrative also skips around maddeningly, key facts are often repeated as if they are new information and McMurtry, in the early chapters, will begin an argument and then trail off, writing, "this will be examined in more detail later." This digressive prose style has about as much drama as a Ph.D. thesis.

These failings may have something to do with the origins of the piece: McMurtry published an essay on this very same topic five years ago in the New York Review of Books, which was also reprinted in the anthology "Sacagawea's Nickname." "The Colonel and Little Missie" appears to be, more or less, a half-baked expansion of that essay.

It is also likely that these failings are, at least in part, the result of McMurtry's own celebrity. No one at Simon & Schuster, it seems, has the authority to do much editing on his books. As a result, some of McMurtry's efforts are markedly better than others. One particularly good one is the 2001 novel "Buffalo Girls," in which McMurtry re-imagines the life of Calamity Jane, who also performed in the Wild West Show. It's a work of fiction, but it'll get you a lot closer to the feel of Cody's theatrical world than this book will.

This originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman

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