Thalia, Texas, has been a fertile field for Larry McMurtry. We’ve been following Duane Moore through thick and thin ever since The Last Picture Show, and it’s been a winning journey. McMurtry has captured the the soul of small-town America in these characters, and though the results have not been uniformly fantastic, there is no better chronicle of the cultural, economic, and technological changes in rural American society than McMurtry has presented. Not that this is sociology. It’s literature. But it contains these elements.
McMurtry has said recently that he feels his powers are waning, that it’s a common condition among aging writers. The recent Berrybender tetrology, a palmisest of his Pulitzer days, would seem to bear him out. Rhino Ranch, however, gives him the lie.
Duane is old now, and Texas is no longer really Texas. You have a few cowpokes around, but they’re now wrangling black horned rhinoceri, imported from Africa for their salvation by a billionairess with more fantasies, time, and money than good sense. McMurtry introduces serious elements of magical realism in the form of Double-Aught, a sort of ghost rhino, which unpredictably appears and reappears to various people at various times. When he does materialize, he’s liable to inflict serious damage on such sacred symbols of modern civilization as school buses and Texas Ranger patrol cars as well as on folks’ sense of reality and expectations.
McMurtry mastered the art of the short chapter in the Berrybender books, and uses it here to wonderful effect. It’s a tv showlike, (think Friends, or Seinfeld) snapshot of scenes and conversations, but it’s artfully crafted in ways that neither of those shows dreamed of. Each of the Rhino Ranch scenes, many of them comic, deepens and widens the characters, their situations, and the spirit of the novel.
Though its tone is deceptively light, in that crackling McMurtry style, Rhino Ranch is fundamentally about aging and loss. Friends, traditions, romances dissolve and are replaced by the unimaginable. The libido goes, then returns. Same with your sanity. You start out herding cattle and end up rounding up Rhinos? Are you kididng? No. So what do you do next? Go to college? It’s an idea. You build up an oil company, breed a couple of spoiled brat daughters no one can stand. Then one of them gives birth to a Rhodes scholar with whom you share deep affection. How does that happen? And what do you do about it?
One thing sure if you’re Duane (or anyone else, probably) you’ll never figure it out, but you can’t stop trying. I didn’t find the ending of Rhino Ranch completely satisfying. Seemed rushed and, as they say in MFA classes, unearned. However, I’m open to a convincing argument to the contrary. Although this is clearly the last Duane, I hope it’s not McMurtry’s Tempest. Except for that business about the ending, I thought this was Larry in top form. Chalk up one for us old guys.
***P.S.–I would any day put Duane up against that east coast blue collar hero at whose altar everyone else worships. Duane beats out Rabbit by a Texas mile in the race for literature’s common man of the last half-century.