Larry McMurtry's new novel is so easygoing it sneaks up on you and breaks your heart. The heroines of Buffalo Girls are two women who actually lived, Martha Jane Canary, better known as Calamity Jane, and a frontier madam named Dora DuFran. Though McMurtry makes no display of his research, readers can work out that his book precisely spans a 16-year period between 1887 and 1903, when Calamity Jane died.
The aging westerners in Larry McMurtry's story are somewhat in the predicament of the cartoon critters of our childhood who ran off cliffs and belatedly realized, in mid-air, that the ground beneath them wasn't there. By 1887 the Wild West is over. We meet two mountain men still looking for beavers, which they haven't seen in 25 years. ''I am glad I ain't like Jim,'' Calamity writes to her daughter. ''He feels sorry for himself because the beaver got used up and it was him...that helped use them up! You'll find plenty of cowboys like that, they'll cuss and complain because the country's all settled up when it was them that settled it!''
The cowboys tend to sneer at Buffalo Bill Cody, who by 1887 has made a big success of his traveling Wild West show, but both Calamity and Dora (and, implicitly, McMurtry) defend his acumen. ''The big adventure's over,'' says Calamity. ''He's smart to make a show of it and sell it to the dudes. I think I'll go hire on with him, if he'll have me.'' He does. Calamity's trip to England to perform before Queen Victoria, with Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull as shipmates, is the novel's central comic episode. But the entirely unexpected love story of Dora DuFran, who meets her husband on a muddy South Dakota street during Calamity's absence, is the book's tenderest, most touching invention. It's a dream of happiness that for a while forms a telling contrast with the hard-luck lives of the others.
As their world disappears, McMurtry's cowboys, Indians, mountain men, and buffalo girls are, with few exceptions, chronically depressed when not, like Calamity, drunk. Yet their stories and their talk are gallantly enjoyable. When the tto disappointed beaver hunters ride into a desolate, abandoned Wyoming town ''It was a beautiful morning, not a cloud between them and Colorado'' they experience the exhilarating feeling of possibility that never entirely deserts them. The book is about hope in the face of hopelessness. A