BOOKS: CLIMBING THE FOOTHILL

IN A PREQUEL TO LONESOME DOVE, LARRY MCMURTRY CONTINUES TO REINVENT THE OLD STORY OF LAWMEN AND GUNMEN ON THE RANGE

No question about it, Larry McMurtry's shaggy new novel Dead Man's Walk (Simon & Schuster; 477 pages; $26) passes the all-important "Call me Ishmael" test. Its first line is "Matilda Jane Roberts was naked as the air." After that start, the narration wafts aloft into further elegant absurdity, as follows: "Known throughout south Texas as the Great Western, she came walking up from the muddy Rio Grande holding a big snapping turtle by the tail. Matilda was almost as large as the skinny little Mexican mustang Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call were trying to saddle-break."

McCrae and Call? We've heard those...

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