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Telegraph Days: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, May 30, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
McMurtry's latest skips through western lore with a wry smile. Marie Antoinette "Nellie" Courtright and her brother, Jackson, bereft of family after their Virginia clan dies off one by one, arrive in Rita Blanca in 1876, in what would become the Oklahoma Panhandle, to remake themselves. Jackson is made a deputy sheriff and Nellie takes over the telegraph office. In short order, Jackson shoots down an entire gang of outlaws, and Nellie promptly writes it up to launch a lucrative literary career. Other adventures await: she becomes manager of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, boldly faces down Jesse James's attempt to rob her and witnesses the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. She becomes mayor of Rita Blanca, a mother of six and, later, friends with Lillian Gish and William B. Mayer. Beautiful and sexually insatiable, Nellie is a witty, sophisticated, accomplished, cunning, impudent and highly improbable woman—more than a match for any man she meets, which isn't saying much, since they're all idiots. She also is little more than a reworking of several previous McMurtry heroines, especially The Berrybender Narratives' Tasmin. This tale is contrived, episodic and lacks cohesion, and its constant comedy is self-conscious. But most readers won't be able to help cracking a smile over McMurtry's 38th book, as purposely over-the-top as an episode of South Park. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
In his latest novel, McMurtry returns to his familiar theme of the mythology versus the reality of the West. Here the closing decades of the western frontier are viewed through the eyes of Nellie Courtright, who is likely to endure as one of McMurtry's most memorable and endearing heroines. As a young, orphaned girl in her early twenties, Nellie finds work as a telegraph operator in the tiny town of Rita Blanca, situated in the "no man's land" that eventually became Oklahoma. She witnesses a gunfight in which her younger brother, by pure luck, wipes out a gang of notorious outlaws. When she decides to pen a dime novel recounting the event, it launches an odyssey during which she encounters many of the icons of frontier lore. She carries on a decades-long platonic relationship with Buffalo Bill. She has repeated encounters with a surly Wyatt Earp, and she witnesses the gunfight at the OK Corral. When the frontier closes, she carves out a new life as owner of a California newspaper. This rollicking epic is filled with excitement and humor, tinged with sadness and a longing for the past. In his striving to demythologize the West, McMurtry's vision of the reality is compelling. Jay Freeman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Top Customer Reviews
While "Little Big Man's" Jack Crabb participated in an unlikely tour of famous western events, most notoriously being the lone Caucasian survivor of the 1876 Battle of Little Big Horn, McMurtry's work begins days later in the fictional Oklahoma panhandle town of Rita Blanca. The Courtright family has been ravished by the rigors of western life, kids and servants alike dead in the ground, and sister Nellie and young brother Jackson have discovered their father has committed suicide in the barn. Alone, with barely a mule to their name, they wander into the dusty town as destitute as ghosts, with the shocking death of Custer on everyone's lips.
McMurtry's extraordinary gifts have always included the creation of fascinating and believable supporting characters, and the small town of Rita Blanca is stuffed with colorful souls. Sheriff Ted, with a crush on Nellie, buffalo hunter Aurel Imlah, general store owner Beau Wheless and Mrs. Karoo, a former slave and proprietor of the always bustling boardinghouse. In short order, the desolate two are adopted by the town as Jackson becomes deputy and Nellie operates the telegraph, a skill she learned in youth.
While "Telegraph Days" is a short book of barely 300 pages, with each chapter an essential three-page snapshot, it travels a long and winding trail into the early 20th century. Rita Blanca serves as the home base for all that happens, a dusty front porch to sit back and watch the legendary parade. In short order, the town is attacked by the Yazee gang, Nellie discovers she enjoys writing and pens a book, she travels to Dodge City to publish, she encounters the Earp brothers and eventually Buffalo Bill pays a visit to soak up the local color.
There's other legendary personalities, as grand as the tallest of tales, who unexpectedly appear before Nellie including Billy the Kid, Jesse James and William Tecumseh Sherman, all with other business on mind, and all impressed by Nellie's spirit. McMurtry has once again written a novel from the viewpoint of a woman, a brave and unique stance that frankly made him famous with Terms of Endearment: A Novel. From Tasmin Berrybender to Lorena Wood to Maria Garza, McMurtry's female heroines are a tragic and fierce lot. Nellie is no different, independent and none too ashamed by her energetic libido.
I suppose we are conditioned by western books (and films) told from the male viewpoint, and certainly McMurtry's greatest novel "Lonesome Dove" traveled such trails. Part of the charm of "Telegraph Days" is indeed the female stance the author adopts. These famous men essentially dodge her incredible wake, a mere nuisance to her own plans of life and success. By novel's end, Nellie is standing on the set of a silent western film outside of a young Hollywood, witnessing first-hand the legends she lived being recreated for the public's entertainment. There's a quiet analogy here, what was and what is, with "is" leading all the way to the 1970's with the numerous TV series still playing prime time such as Centennial: The Complete Series and How the West Was Won: Season 1.
McMurtry, famously raised near the Texas panhandle in Archer City, inspired by stories he heard as a child on a ranch, has always attempted to poke holes in the western legends turned into beloved entertainment gold for the American (and world) masses. "Telegraph Days," part satire and comedy, eccentric and colorful, is yet another examination of those myths. It is a sentimental play, his own considerable imaginings within a small town representing a rustic version of American dreams. There's such sadness when you close the book, as if something is lost. And that my friends, is a great journey.
Highly recommended because it's funny and still gives a good feel for the Old West.
The fictitious supporting characters in the book were interesting and the best part of the book. They were actually more interesting than the narrator. The famous supporting cast included Wild Bill Hickcock and Buffalo Bill, with a cameo by Billy the Kid. They seemed contrived. It was the unknown fictitious characters that gave any genuine western flavor to the book.
There was some good humor and spoofing of the old western novels, but all in all, the plot lacked depth and at times approached tedium. Although the book was not awful, there was little to recommend it. Nellie has an interesting life, but it did not seem the author was that invested in it. Therefore neither is the reader.
A quick light read, but nothing great.