BUFFALO GIRLS

By Larry McMurtry

Simon and Schuster. 351 pp. $19.95

PROBABLY Larry McMurtry cannot write a bad book, but his Buffalo Girls is disappointingly low on the McMurtry scale: down around, say, Cadillac Jack.

This one takes place mostly in the Montana-Dakota-Wyoming territories, from about 1888 to 1903. It imagines the latter days of various Old West characters, some historical, some fictional, after they have outlived the times or exploits that made them American legends. These include mountain men after the beaver have all been trapped, plainsmen after the buffalo have all been shot, red men after they are almost all extinct.

The central character is the hard-living, hard-drinking, leather-tough (but tender inside) Martha Jane Canary, better known then and now as "Calamity Jane." Much of the book consists of her reminiscences of her glory days and her lamentations over their being lost and gone. However, since she frankly confides that there really was nothing of glory in those days -- that the legends of her Pony Express riding, her scouting for the Army, her romance with Wild Bill Hickok, all were fictions of her own invention -- one frequently wonders exactly what losses she has to grieve about.

Various of Calamity's friends similarly rehash the good old days or talk hopefully of better ones to come. Dora DuFran is the madam of a three-girl brothel, who aspires to higher things, like wifedom and motherhood. Buffalo Bill Cody and the old Chief Sitting Bull have turned their legends into profitable showmanship. The once-footloose cowboy Blue has settled down to hardscrabble ranching. By far the most appealing character is No Ears, a last survivor of the Ogalala Sioux, aged beyond counting, but still spry, still capable of childish wonderment at the marvels of the natural world, and of even more wonderment at the doings of his white-man acquaintances.

Calamity opines of these friends, "People can't give up hoping for what they once had, youth or you name it . . ." and at another point remarks, "The big adventure's over. It's over, and that's that." Well, that it is. And, the folks having little to occupy them except wishful thinking and nostalgic reveries, there's not a great deal of action or incident in this novel. That doesn't matter so much, as long as the story stays in the west that McMurtry knows and renders so well, where he can make us share the bittersweet longings for What Used to Be. And, as always, his people speak some wonderfully droll/wise lines, such as Calamity's comment anent Dora's new, native and much-younger husband, "He's a whopping piece of dough. But he ain't set yet. You can roll him into any kind of biscuit you want -- only do it quick. You can never tell when a boy like that will set."

The author could better have let Calamity & Co. stay in the West. But a hefty chunk of the book is devoted to their joining Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and going to England to perform during Queen Victoria's Jubilee. This lengthy episode is tepid, flat and colorless from beginning to end. New York is "a smokey town." The voyagers board "a great vessel" to cross the "great plain of water" and find London to be "an unusual place." CONSIDERING what Mark Twain did with only a passel of hymn-singing tourists as his Innocents Abroad, a novelist taking a bunch of rugged frontiersmen to visit the Old World ought to have found opportunity galore for culture-clash humor, satire, conflict, just about anything. Alas, the opportunity is totally thrown away here. Except for some limp comments on some local notables -- the Prince of Wales is "a pretty fat prince" -- we are not shown or made to feel any place, person or event during the entire tour.

Worse, we never get the least sense of the Wild West Show itself. We get little more than this TV Guide capsule summary, "The story of the west was a great story. You had a wilderness won, red race against white race, nature red in tooth and claw, death to the loser, glory to the victor: what could ever make a nobler show?" What, indeed? But you won't experience it here. So little of its program, pageantry, logistics, general whoopdedoo gets conveyed that Buffalo Bill might as well be showing magic-lantern slides or a waxworks display. It is a relief to the reader, the characters (and, I suspect, to the author) when the action again shifts to the Dakotas and concludes there.

Lord knows the west itself spawned myths enough to stock several libraries. But McMurtry invokes an even more ancient Greek myth to acount for Calamity Jane's contrarieties, pathetic fantasies -- even the ironic aptness of her nickname. However, if some of the other things in these pages are intended as really recondite mythic allusions, I confess they elude me. Two male characters with only trivial parts to play, one in Dakota, one in London, both are afflicted with disfiguring goiters. (Ref. the Book of Job?) Calamity's two closest male friends, major characters in the story, are longtime buddies named Ragg and Bone. (Ref. the Book of Kipling?) Maybe someday there'll be a Skeleton Key to Buffalo Girls, as there is for Finnegans Wake.

But keep it simple. Call this novel one more paean to and elegy for the Vanished Old West. Unfortunately for Buffalo Girls, this was done incomparably better, 20-some years ago -- without the aid of celebrity name-dropping, but with some of the same plot devices -- in Jack Schaefer's Monte Walsh. Go back and read that one.

Gary Jennings is the author of 14 nonfiction books, most recently "World of Words," and six novels, most recently "Spangle."