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Book review: ‘Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life’ goes past the cowboy’s Hollywood image

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"Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life" is by Andrew C. Isenberg.

“Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life” is by Andrew C. Isenberg.


"WYATT EARP: A Vigilante Life,” by Andrew C. Isenberg, Hill and Wang, $16, 320 pages (nf)

“Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life” is a story about the cowboy that peels back the layers of Hollywood glamor.

Author Andrew Isenberg writes an in-depth study of Wyatt Earp’s life and has clearly done his research, but his portrayal of Earp is not the Wild West American hero that fans of the movie "Tombstone" or connoisseurs of the showdown at the OK Corral might be looking for. Isenberg emphasizes Earp’s disregard of the law and ability to reinvent himself at will, but not in any rugged, decent at heart cowboy way.

“While the Hollywood version (of Earp) is stubbornly, consistently duty-bound, in actuality Wyatt led a life of restlessness, inconstancy, impulsive law-breaking, and shifting identities,” Isenberg writes in this book that recenly was released in paperback. “… Though Wyatt, who died in 1929, did not live to see it, Hollywood’s embrace of him as a paragon of law and order was the realization of his last and undoubtedly his greatest confidence game, his surest revenge, and his most complete reinvention.”

These lines accurately sum up Isenberg’s portrayal of the famous American West icon. In his own words, he seems determined to reveal Earp for what he really is, despite the false image created by popular culture.

Isenberg drives home the idea of Earp as a public menace, a criminal, a drunk heartbreaker who spends his time in gambling halls and brothels and an all around selfish human being. As unflinching as it is, any Wild West skeptic or reader who is tired of infallible Western heroes might enjoy this new take.

Fans of Earp and the cowboy life in general, however, will likely be rubbed the wrong way by Isenberg’s take-no-prisoners approach to Earp’s reputation. Occasionally it seems to nearly reach the level of a personal grudge, as Isenberg hints and alludes to negative traits that he can’t seem to say directly.

Isenberg is a good writer and a thorough researcher who has chosen to write a unique angle on Earp’s life. That said, readers should pick up this book expecting an expose of the cowboy life and an airing of dirty secrets, not the good-natured exploration of rough justice in the American West that the face on the cover might lead them to expect.

This book contains mild violence and sexuality.

Bethan Owen is a writer for the Deseret News Moneywise and Opinion sections. Twitter: BethanO2