Larry McMurtry’s latest, When the Light Goes, involves neither gay cowboys nor the adventures of English aristocrats in the old west (The Berrybender Narratives). It’s a return to Thalia, Texas, home of his first fame, The Last Picture Show.
The protagonist of When the Light Goes is Duane, also one of the central characters of The Last Picture Show, appropriately aged, and also the title character of the most recent Thalia work, Duane’s Depressed.
Duane has it made financially, passed on his thriving oil business to his son, Dickie, who suddenly got responsible when saddled with responsibility and is taking the business to new levels. Wealthy though he is, Duane is not doing so well. Even before his wife was killed in a car crash,he got sick of his high-living life-style, moved out of his grand house, stays in a little cabin he built way outside of town, has forsaken driving, walks and bikes everywhere. He spends hours per week with a therapist with whom he’s fallen in love and still he can’t quite pull himself together.
When Light opens, Duane has just returned from a jaunt to Egypt where he went on the advice of his psychologist. The trip has improved, but not solved, his mental state. He walks into the Thalia office of his oil company (the main office is now in Wichita Falls) and is greeted by a stranger in a manner that forms one of the more arresting openingsI’ve read for quite a while.
“Wow, look at those two!” the young woman exclaimed–by “those two” she seemed to be referring to her own stiffening nipples, plainly visible beneath a pale shirt that showed her small breasts as clearly as if she had been naked.
“Hard as little pickles,” she said pleasantly, standing up o shake Duane’s hand.
What the young woman is doing there and how Duane deals with her and her situation forms the nucleus of When the Light Goes. You read this book with a smile on your face because McMurtry is at his lightly sardonic best here. Things are tough in Thalia. People have screwed up their lives. They die. Duane’s kids are a mess. One daughter decides to become a nun. The other decides she’s gay. Both of them have money but no satisfaction in their lives. Duane himself discovers that at age sixty-four he needs sex tutelage and serious surgery. But if Voltaire’s right about life being a tragedy for those who feel, a comedy for those who think, McMurtry is an A-number-one thinker. Even the most intense crises are treated tongue in cheek because he gives us to understand simultaneously how much everything matters and how much it doesn’t. Light a short and easy read, and one tends to treat it as fluff. But it is much more than surface hi-jinks. It’s neither Lonesome Dove nor oscar or pulitzer material, but it’s entertaining, satisfying, and–well, it’s McMurtry.