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A wild West knight's tale

The Cowboy With the Tiffany Gun: A Novel, Aaron Latham, Simon & Schuster: 385 pp., $25

August 10, 2003|Michael Harris | Michael Harris is a regular contributor to Book Review.

"The Cowboy With the Tiffany Gun" is Aaron Latham's second double-barreled blast of Texas history and Arthurian legend. It takes up 17 years after "Code of the West" left off. In 1892, the Guinevere figure, Revelie Goodnight, widow of "the greatest of ranchers," frontier lawgiver Jimmy Goodnight, returns from Boston to nurse her Lancelot, Jack Loving, "the best of the cowboys," who has been shot in a saloon fracas defending her honor. Revelie herself shot and killed somebody in "Code of the West" and fears she still could be prosecuted in Texas. She has acquired a distaste for guns and has tried to drum that attitude into her 17-year-old son, Percy, whose father is supposed to have been Jimmy but may in fact be Jack. Percy, though, likes guns; indeed, he's a natural-born dead shot -- fitting for a youth who will take on the role of Sir Percival, the pure knight who overcomes all obstacles to find the Holy Grail.

Traveling cross country, Revelie and Percy are joined by Jessica "Jesse" Swenson, a runaway Harvey House waitress whose greater experience in romance Percy finds attractive. They arrive at the Goodnight Ranch to find that Jimmy's tombstone, along with an ax blade that was embedded in it, has been stolen. Local lore has it that only Jimmy was able to pull the ax from its previous resting place, an anvil, and that only his son can free it from the stone. Percy, beginning to wonder whose son he is, sees this Grail-and-Excalibur combination as the key to his identity.

Suspicion falls on Jimmy's old enemies, the Robber's Roost gang, which holes up (literally) among swarms of bats in Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. With Jack incapacitated and Revelie in hiding, it falls to young and untested Percy to lead the posse. To do so, he must divest himself of good grammar, stop deferring to "Mumsy's" wishes, acquire a nickname -- "Pyg" for Percy York Goodnight -- and try to lose his virginity in matters of violence and sex.

Miles of rugged trail lie ahead of Percy before he can establish himself as a man among men, then as a leader. Long before he reaches New Mexico, he is frozen in a blizzard and bitten by snakes, and his collarbone is broken by Little Dogie, the biggest and meanest of his cowboys. In Quanah, Texas, he nearly drowns in a flood and barely escapes a fire. Ranchers, opposed to a "Winchester Quarantine" to keep out cattle infected with tick fever, tar and feather Percy. And he is obliged to shoot several people, including a bar girl.

To offset this grimness, Latham, best known for "Urban Cowboy" (whose screenplay he based on a story he wrote for Esquire), relies on a number of running gags, such as Percy's always interrupted attempts to make love to Jesse (who is unsuitable wife material in Revelie's view, and often prickly as a cactus in Percy's, but nonetheless has her charms) and his always frustrated attempts to find out whether Mumsy was -- gasp! -- a loose woman before he was born and whether she's carrying on with Jack even now.

In an introductory note, Latham assures us: "Yes, Tiffany really did make silver six-shooters once upon a time. And, yes, what I call the 'plagues of Egypt' " -- flood, fire and fever -- "really did ravage West Texas more or less as described." Yet realism isn't the dominant note of "The Cowboy With the Tiffany Gun." Latham is aiming for the mixture of historical accuracy and humorous detachment that Larry McMurtry perfected in "Lonesome Dove" and Edwin "Bud" Shrake imitated in "The Borderland." Now and then he succeeds, but much of his humor is of the sitcom sort, and we don't finish this novel with the sense that we've learned anything new about the Old West or, by inference, about our own time. It's well-paced, action-packed entertainment -- nothing more.

At one point, Latham takes a quite unnecessary risk. To pass the time in Jack's sickroom before he has recovered sufficiently for more amorous pursuits, Revelie reads aloud to him from a popular novel of the time. Latham doesn't name the novel or its author, but it's clearly identifiable as Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court." Revelie complains that what starts out as a funny story gets darker in the end and has far too much to do with guns. In other words, it's more than entertainment. Nobody in his right mind would write a comic novel that gratuitously invites us to compare it with the work of the Man From Missouri. Even a tenderfoot like Percy would know better.

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