Zeke and Ned, by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana (Simon & Schuster). Hardcover, $25.
By Tom Danehy
THE TWO QUESTIONS most often asked of sometime-Tucsonan Larry McMurtry are why, with such a distinguished body of work, does he continue to write at such a frantic pace; and why would such a wildly successful writer take on a partner at this point in his career?
The answer to the first is that he enjoys it and has interesting tales to tell, as witnessed by his ability to wring endearing and exciting stories out of every stage of the lives of Gus and Woodrow in the Lonesome Dove series.
As for the second, hey, who knows? People wondered why the Eagles picked up Joe Walsh. The wondering reached fever pitch when word of the friction between Walsh and Don Henley got out, but all that can be said is that friction led to the Hotel California album. If it works, why question it?
And the literary collaboration between McMurtry and Tucsonan Diana Ossana works. It worked in the under-appreciated Pretty Boy Floyd book, and The Streets of Laredo mini-series screenplay. And it works especially well in their latest work, Zeke and Ned, a thoroughly engaging tale of a legendary Cherokee warrior on the run from federal posses, his life defined and changed forever by an accidental shooting committed not by him, but by a good friend of his.
As they did in Pretty Boy Floyd, McMurtry and Ossana deal with a real-life folk hero, fuzzying the edges around the story a bit, but keeping the main storyline intact, realizing that rarely, if ever, can fiction be better than fact.
Was Pretty Boy Floyd a misunderstood product of a tough time or just a petty thug with a good PR agent? The former point of view is a tough sell, even for a writer as gifted as McMurtry. But here, he and Ossana have no trouble painting Ned Christie as a hero, a simple, flawed man for whom we pull throughout the book.
Ned and his friend, Zeke Proctor, live in the Cherokee Nation, north of the Red River and west of Arkansas, in an area which was to forever remain Indian Territory (until oil was discovered and the U.S. reneged on another treaty and turned it into God-forsaken Oklahoma).
Both are scratching out an existence in the wild times after the Civil War. Ned has the notion to marry Zeke's 16-year-old daughter, the aptly-named Jewel, but fate intervenes in a most cruel way.
Zeke, who loves his wife, Becca, nonetheless has longings for Polly, the unappreciated wife of T. Spade Beck, a miserable, mean old coot who had publicly insulted Zeke. An odd set of circumstances leads to a gun battle between T. Spade and Zeke, with the only fatality being the innocent Polly.
This tragic accident will have a profound effect of the life of Ned Christie, while ironically having almost none on that of Zeke Proctor.
The Indian authorities want very much to dispense justice, mostly to maintain order, but also partly to keep the white men from imposing their own brutal order on the Indians. Zeke will stand trial, but only if he can live long enough. The bloodthirsty Beck clan wants him dead, even if they have to extract their revenge right there in the courtroom.
A brutal confrontation in the courtroom, told by the authors in a creepily straightforward manner, leaves many lives altered (and more than a few abruptly cut short).
It also makes a fugitive of Ned, while leaving Zeke a free man. Ned Christie will evade and confound federal posses for years to come after the incident, his legend growing geometrically with each narrow escape.
This is an excellent book, told with heartfelt affection for Ned Christie, as well as for other characters, most notably the ill-fated Jewel. It stacks up well with McMurtry's other works. It's fast-paced, lively and pulled along by razor-sharp dialogue. As for its being a collaboration, it's a seamless work, smooth and fulfilling.
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