November 19, 1990 12:00 PM

by Larry McMurtry

McMurtry, who did a rather dull job of fictionalizing the legend of Billy the Kid in Anything for Billy, fares better with the ragged final years of Calamity Jane.

We join her at age 38, still hard-knocking her way around the Great Plains. She boozes throughout a stint with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, and ends up mopping out a saloon in Deadwood for whiskey and a cot.

McMurtry does a fine job of presenting the hardships and casual violence our ancestors lived with little more than a century ago. He has also stocked his novel with a posseful of colorful characters, including

No Ears, an Oglala older than the hills, and Bartle Bone and Jim Ragg, two mountain men pursuing the obsolete trade of beaver trapping. Then there’s the troubled, rough-hewn heroine. Earthy? Hell, she’s magmatic.

The ending is a little too tidy, as McMurtry resolves Jane’s romantic obsession with the dead Wild Bill Hickok at the same time he drops in a sexual bombshell. The real problem, though, is that Buffalo Girls lacks both the depth and the scope of McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. It’s a prairie pup compared with Pete Dexter’s masterful novel about Wild Bill. Deadwood, which roams over some overlapping territory with a good deal more grace. (Simon and Schuster, $19.95)

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