"Custer" by Larry McMurtry; Simon & Schuster ($35)

"Custer" by Larry McMurtry; Simon & Schuster ($35)

The great Larry McMurtry has written a book about Custer and the Battle of Little Bighorn.

But he hasn't written THE book about Gen. George Armstrong Custer.

In fact, he barely even tried.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Lonesome Dove" more or less acknowledges this within the pages of his skimpy new biography/coffee table book, "Custer."

In one chapter, McMurtry advises readers to check out works by Evan Connell, Robert Utley, James Donovan and Nathaniel Philbrick if they want to get the full story about Custer's Last Stand.

"Read these four books," he writes, "and you can consider yourself very well informed about Custer, his men, the Indians and the battle itself."

Not surprisingly, this quote cannot be found on the cover in bold letters.

Yet inside, McMurtry comes clean, admitting that he walked the Little Bighorn battlefield in Montana, the site of one of history's most infamous military catastrophes, only twice.

If he's unwilling to put in the legwork to gather every last nugget of Custer lore, McMurtry can hardly stake a claim to having written the last word on the subject.

At best, "Custer" is like a CliffsNotes version of the story of an arrogantly reckless military leader and his inevitable comeuppance.

To be fair, this is a CliffsNotes guide written by a gifted wordsmith. He is Larry McMurtry, after all. What's more, it's also a richly illustrated volume, filled with wonderful paintings depicting Custer's Last Stand and archival photos of Custer and his contemporaries.

Yet it's also worth noting that these illustrations are accompanied by flimsy captions describing the artwork and no information about the artists.

Custer simply isn't the kind of book that sweats the details.

What McMurtry does quite well, mind you, is create an interesting portrait of Custer, a vain and brash military man who finished last in his class at West Point yet often succeeded despite a pattern of poor judgment. He was hated by his soldiers, he wouldn't listen to his advisers, and he didn't follow orders.

Once we get to know this deeply flawed man, one convinced of his invincibility, it comes as little surprise that he would bullheadedly divide his troops on June 25, 1876, then march about 250 exhausted men of the 7th Cavalry to their deaths in battle against thousands of Sioux and Cheyenne Indian warriors.

What is surprising is that McMurtry, wonderful storyteller that he is, declined to do more with some of the rich story threads that make Custer's fall from grace such an enduring tale.

Consider, for example, the much-debated anecdote that Custer is said to have fearlessly, cluelessly, perhaps tellingly smiled in the face of death.

McMurtry pretty much throws water on that story. He points out that there were no military survivors from the battle and that most of the Indian warriors wouldn't have known Custer if they saw him, particularly given that the peacock of a general known as "Long Hair" was sporting a fresh haircut.

So who can truly know whether Custer was smiling at the end?

McMurtry then quotes a Pvt. Thomas Coleman, who walked the battlefield in the aftermath of the massacre and claimed to have seen that grim grin firsthand.

Philbrick devoted a whole chapter to Custer's smile; McMurtry spends about a page on it.

That's the difference between McMurtry's book and those of the historians he often references: His is the shorter and at times incomplete version of the story. That might be enough for many readers.

But if you want more, follow McMurtry's advice and seek out those other authors.