When we last saw Duane Moore in Larry McMurtry’s 2007 novel When the Light Goes, he was a sixty-something malcontent who had just found age-old happiness with a much younger woman. When we first saw him back in 1966, in McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show, he was a sexually confused teenager living in a dying Texas town. In McMurtry’s latest Duane Moore-and-town- of-Thalia saga Rhino Ranch, our hero is still confused about women though he knows he likes them young. The more things change…
The fifth book in the series that began in 1966 with The Last Picture Show— and promised last–is more like the previous two than the first two. The Last Picture Show is a great American novel, a tale of aimless, small-town youth in a graying American lifestyle. The languid, now-pointless town of Thalia, is full of boys who are afraid of girls and happy to pursue a rancher’s blind heifer to satisfy their otherwise repressed sexual desires. In When the Light Goes Out, successful oil-patch man Duane Moore is told by a big-city psychiatrist and a lesbian to boot that he doesn’t understand women and relationships. Somehow it didn’t take three books to prove it. Thinking back, one has to feel even sorrier for the sightless heifer.
Thalia, dying in the first book and dying again after another oil boom thirty years later in Texasville, has become a joke in the last three installments. The Last Picture Show used the town to symbolize the erosion of small town life, pitting those who stay against those who wanted to leave. It’s still on life support, pulsed by a series of ironic gags: two Sri Lankans symbolize the globalization of small town life by taking over the corner convenience store and turning it into the Asia Wonder Deli, technology is seen as just the thing to re-invigorated the oil business, and the ranches have all been bought up by the rich and cut into “hunting leases.” The mistakes of the ubiquitous meth cookers make prairie fire a constant threat and the cemetery seems the most lively place in town. In the new volume, a billionairess intent on saving the black African rhinoceros, takes over a huge swath of ranchland to pursue her goals. What little life this pumps into the nearby town mostly breeds scorn and resentment. The strange opportunities and characters the rhino ranch brings seems to make Duane even more confused.
Duane’s always had good reason to be confused. Back in the 1960s, the high school beauty queen prick-teased him unmercifully. Years later, his much-loved wife is killed in an auto accident. His children behave strangely. He falls in love withy his therapist only to discover she’s a lesbian. His new, much-younger wife runs off with an Iranian playboy.
As in Duane’s Depressed and When the Light Goes, Duane casts around blankly, walking the Texas flatlands, spending time with his remaining friends and fishing out of sheer boredom. When the diagnosis comes, it’s not too deep to understand. “You’ve lost your sense of purpose,” the billionaire rhino rancher observes. Duane agrees.
Purpose, of course, means sex and Duane is enthused at its promise, first with an under-aged prostitute, secondly with a Thai secretary at his former oil company and lastly a much younger reporter who like to drink bourbon and do housecleaning. At his age, you’d think Duane is ready to retire. But McMurtry seems to have other ideas.
He’s enlivened this book with a few nice touches of the sort represented by the Asia Wonder Deli and the big-city shrink who takes an interest in our backwater hero. Here it comes in the form of ranch hands imported from South Africa, an old bushman hired to patrol the fence lines with nothing but a spear and an old and formidable rhino who appears to have supernatural abilities and, of course, takes a liking to Duane.
Much of the other fun in Rhino Ranch comes from the supporting cast. Bobby Lee Baxter, who admits that he’s a “dick-driven” man, consumes whiskey with Boyd Cotton, a man more interested in horses than women, as they stand watch with big-game worthy rifles over the eclectic herd. Duane’s single testicle son Dickie keeps thing lively at the Moore Oil Company by hiring that under-aged prostitute. The billionairess’ boyfriend, Hondo Honda, is a former Texas Ranger, who never goes anywhere, including the shower, without his rifle. Hondo is even more aimless than Duane. As Dickie notes, both Hondo and Duane have “become mere shadows of their former selves.”
The fatigue Duane’s story endures is reflected in the short-and-shorter chapters of Rhino Ranch. Few are over two pages long. Many are a page or less. These brief scenes make for quick and easy reading. But they also seem to represent the exhaustion McMurty’s storyline has suffered over three very similar books. Don’t get us wrong. We love Duane Moore and think he’s one of the great character inventions of the last 40 years. But his story ran its course two books back and we can’t help think that McMurty, as did John Updike with Rabbit Angstrom, should put him to rest.–Cabbage Rabbit