After their father “hung himself to death” Marie Antoinette "Nellie" Courtright and her brother, Jackson are left orphaned in Rita Blanca, a small dusty town located in what will eventually become the Oklahoma panhandle, but for now is simply known as No-Man’s-Land. Nellie describes herself as "twenty-two, kissable, and of an independent disposition", attributes that when mixed with luck and opportunity put her next to, or in bed with just about every legendary figure of the Old West. Buffalo Bill, Wyatt Earp (plus his brothers Warren and semi-sweet Virgil), Doc Holliday, George Custer, Wild Bill Hickock, and Billy the Kidd find their way into a chapter or two. Even General William Tecumseh Sherman pays a brief visit.
Like the dime novel genre that makes its literary debut in this rambling epic, Telegraph Days is short on character and plot, but long on action. As a fan of McMurtry, my first impression was one of disappointment, feeling that this was a simple piece of contrived fluff, dashed off to please the publishers. I still think it is fluff, but the darned thing continues to tug at me.
What strikes me the most is the realization that all of these larger than life characters really did flash and burn within a possible single lifetime. Through this twenty-two year old heroine we briefly meet in human form men and women who are now permanent residents of Old West mythology. To me, the most poignant character in the book is the town of Rita Blanca which at the end of the book lives on as a recreated movie set, even as the original town fades into oblivion.