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Cecil, a teenager living with his family in Boone’s Lick, Missouri, not long after the Civil War. The Cecils set off to Wyoming to find Shay’s father, Dick, who is somewhere out there achieving manifest destiny and so forth. The family is made up of Uncle Seth, Dick’s brother, a gimpy graduate of the War who, despite having shot off his own kneecap by mistake, is a great sharpshooter, as well as an inventive and energetic talker; Mary Margaret Cecil, Seth’s mother, a force of nineteenth-century frontier womanhood; G.T., Shay’s cranky brother; Neva, his slightly mysterious sister; Granpa Crackenthorpe, who is grumpy; Mary Margaret’s beautiful half-sister, who is a prostitute; and a baby, in a small non-speaking part. They are joined, eventually, by a jocund French priest and a diffident Indian. The novel mostly consists of the family’s trek west to find Dick Cecil, where he has been up to generally manly things: carving out the frontier, chopping wood, having children with various women. It includes some historyWild Bill Hickok makes an appearance, as does Colonel Fetterman, who led his U.S. Army into a bloody slaughter by the Cheyenne and Sioux peoples. It includes as well some lively conversation, but it relies on Shay for its eyes, and this is too bad. Shay is a bland narrator and a bland observer. McMurtry tries to liven him up by giving him italics \(“I wasn’t so sure I would be smarter the next time,” or “But, by looking close, I finally did see the ripple Charlie for a voice with any personality to speak of. Shay is a descendant of Lonnie, the voice of Horseman, Pass By, but McMurtry has given him none of the poetic license, or capacity, that he gave his first narrator. Seth and Mary Margaret have more personality than Shay, but they suffer by comparison to other books in the McMurtry oeuvre. Seth is a tame Augustus McCraewhat Gus might have been if he had lost a leg as a young man and sat around for a decade or so pining after his beloved Clara instead of adventuring. And Mary Margaret is a little too much like Clara, if a Clara with a mission to settle accounts. Neva and G.T. don’t live and breathe much, just refer us to character types that McMurtry has done before and done better: Neva in particular, if only because McMurtry leads us to believe that she’s going to be iconoclastic and sassy and specific, the kind of girl he’s animated beautifully in the past, only to reduce her for the large part of the novel to a girl who never gets to do much of anything except call her brothers oafs. McMurtry is coasting, and that too is a pity. Danny Deck, his novelist-turned-massively-successful-TV-writer, sometimes seems as if he could be a particularly unflattering self-portrait: the novelist with the dream of greatness who gave it up for less ambitious stuff, which made him rich and brought him fame but was not, and was somehow lesser than, what he had dreamed of. McMurtry, though, is no TV writer. He is not a great writer, but he is a wonderful comic storyteller. If he is not Proust, at least he is not Cormac McCarthy, or any writer whose ambition far outstrips his talent. McMurtry knows what he is good at, and he is great at it. But Boone’s Lick is not a great example of his talents. And it has no cowboys to speak of. Perhaps, in one form or another, he needs them. Edwin Shrake’s The Borderland doesn’t have much in the way of cowboys either, really. But it does have Indians, a Texas Ranger, Mirabeau Lamar, and Sam Houston. It is set in 1839, in a three-year-old Texas, and Shrake’s project, the jacket copy informs me, is to tell “the tale of how mighty Texas was born.” It starts grandly, with a wonderful piece of writing that makes reading the rest of the book a great frustration. I spent the next 400 pages wondering where the writer who had written that first page had got to, and if he’d come back. He doesn’t. The Borderland has to recommend it, above all, the fun Shrake has had naming characters, among them the Fighting Man, the Thin Man, the Thinking Man, and the Dark Man; Herman the German, Googleye, Horace Wapner, Velasco Chiltoskie, and Mr. Maurice. But there’s not much else. Shrake’s subject may be the new Texas, the betrayal of the Comanches, the white man’s fascination with the uncivilized borderland and his simultaneous urge to push it farther and farther from him, or the birth of Austin, but the novel relies mostly on four characters: a fabled Ranger, Matthew Caldwell, known as Old Paint; his German-Jewish bride, Hannah Dahlman; Dr. Romulus Swift, half-Cherokee alumnus of Columbia University; and his 19-year-old sister, Cullasaja Swift, who is as impossibly beautiful as she is impossibly good. There’s a villain as well, Henry Longfellow, a misogynist’s misogynist who first tries to rape Cullasaja and then Hannah and generally lurks around being as evil as he possibly can be. Caldwell is an old hero who wants to settle into domestic bliss. Dr. see “Westerns,” on page DECEMBER 22, 2000 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 5