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Back In The Saddle Again 

McMurtry returns to the West despite misgivings

It's hard to pity a best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, but, in the case of Larry McMurtry, it's possible. The 66-year-old author won his widest fame for Lonesome Dove, a sprawling narrative following an adventuresome, troubled cattle drive from Texas to Montana. The bitter heartaches, the senseless, random violence, the relentless difficulty of life in the 19th century West, McMurtry rendered each aspect with spare prose and an unsparing eye. Despite those accomplishments, readers embraced the book for reasons the author deplored: romantic notions of the Old West. Lonesome Dove aimed to debunk the mythic West; for many readers, it only reestablished it."I thought I had written about a harsh time and some pretty harsh people, but, to the public at large, I had produced something nearer to an idealization," McMurtry wrote 15 years after Lonesome Dove had become a cottage industry of miniseries, sequels and related nostalgia. "Instead of a poor-man's Inferno, filled with violence, faithlessness and betrayal, I had actually delivered a kind of Gone With the Wind of the West, a turnabout I'll be mulling over for a long, long time."

The author's ambivalence is apt, since he himself cranked out several secondary sequels and prequels, reviving and killing off various characters from the original novel.

No matter how many times his clear-eyed vision of an embattled and beleaguered West is misread, McMurtry returns to the range. (Contemporary novels such as Terms of Endearment and The Last Picture Show are rarely associated with their creator anymore; instead, he's the carnival barker outside the Wild West caravan.) He considers himself a rancher just like earlier generations of the McMurtry clan. Only, in his case, he herds words and sentences, not cattle and horses.

In his 24th and newest novel, Sin Killer, McMurtry is again meandering through the West of the 19th century. This time he's dabbling in the 1830s, carrying a motley crew of British aristocrats, servants, Indians and wizened prairie denizens up the Missouri River on the Rocky Mount, a luxury steamboat.

As in his earlier works, McMurtry tweaks and deflates stereotypes with glee. Boredom can cause as much trouble as any Indian raid, and the motivations of most characters are more mundane than sublime.

Sin Killer follows the Berrybenders, a wealthy English family led by Lord Albany Berrybender, a pompous European who has dragged his family to America in search of exotic game. He's loaded the steamer with gaudy provisions, including a thousand bottles of claret. In tow are legions of attentive and peculiar staff: valets, cooks, naturalists, tutors, interpreters, guides.

It is Berrybender's eldest daughter, Tasmin, who leaves the deepest impression. A headstrong young woman, she's attractive, self-enamored, brave, sharp-tongued and, often, foolhardy. Lord Berrybender believes his daughter's dowry worthy of a Bourbon or a Hapsburg; instead, she winds up with a gruff frontiersmen, Jim Snow. She meets Snow, known as Raven Brave among the Indians and as Sin Killer among the whites -- for his strident disdain of all things blasphemous -- after wandering away from the steamboat in search of peace and quiet.

On an impulse, Tasmin marries Snow. The novel focuses on their itinerant meetings, as she wanders between her family on the boat and the dangerous, violent plains Snow patrols along the Missouri.

Much like Aurora Greenway in Terms of Endearment, Tasmin exemplifies McMurtry's notion of women as strong, and strong-willed. Fortunately, he's able to bestow dignity without resorting to piety. Most appealing, Tasmin displays a nonpareil talent for verbal sparring. When her pretentious father learns his daughter has not only married Snow, but is also pregnant, he blusters.

"What?" Berrybender sputters. "You harlot, I'm ruined! Where is the fellow? I'll kill him." Tasmin swats his remarks away with aplomb. "You're not ruined at all, you're just drunk."

Sin Killer is the first of a planned four-book series spanning the years 1832-1836 and following the Berrybenders along the four great rivers of the West: the Missouri, the Yellowstone, the Rio Grande and the Brazos.

Some of the exploits in the first volume are a bit silly. Numerous fingers, toes and other body parts among the travelers are lost, diseased or maimed. McMurtry still enjoys killing characters as much as creating them. The manner of death, at times, borders on slapstick. And for a book that totals 300 pages, there is a surfeit of ancillary characters. It's difficult to criticize much beyond that since the introductory novel is ostensibly laying the foundation for the rest of the tale.

The pages breeze along through the majority of Sin Killer; even when he falters with an overstuffed tableau of characters, McMurtry saves himself with trademark humor and interloping historical figures who lend additional spark.

Consider real-life painter George Catlin, along for the Berrybenders' excursion to capture images of the West on canvas. Catlin plans to call his portfolio of Native American portraits "Vanishing Races" because he knows that for the wild, warring Indians, the end cannot be far away. This revelation comes 44 years before the massacre at Little Big Horn.

Some episodes are vintage McMurtry -- violence, satire, misunderstanding and, most of all, the relentless tide of human folly, whether on the Missouri or anywhere else. With three novels remaining in the Berrybender Narratives, the real intrigue is determining what variety of sins and killers McMurtry plans next.

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