- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 4, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

RHINO RANCH

By Larry McMurtry

Simon & Schuster, $26, 277 pages

Reviewed by James Srodes

I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but Duane Moore dies at the end of this book, and it is hard to see how the fictional West Texas town of Thalia is going to survive. Those who have been there say Thalia is modeled after author Larry McMurtry’s hometown of Archer City, except that he left out some of the eccentricities, such as the Lake Kickapoo Field Station, operated by the 20th Space Control Squadron, which is part of the U.S. Air Force’s Space Surveillance System to observe objects passing over the United States. No lie. Mr. McMurtry doubtless figured the people of Thalia had enough trouble coping with life in their one-stoplight ex-cow-town on the arid edge of the oil belt without having to deal with aliens floating overhead.

Instead, Mr. McMurtry gives us a herd of rhinoceroses, huge African black rhinoceroses to be exact. Hence the title. Not surprisingly, the roughly 2,000 folks who live in Thalia (it’s a short drive south of the very real Wichita Falls) don’t like the animals and don’t like the wealthy do-gooder who brings them in to prevent them from becoming extinct. In the end, they don’t like Duane Moore very much, either. Small towns are like that.

Duane is just one in the repertory company of characters with whom Mr. McMurtry has dealt in just one of the many sagas he has served up in what by my quick count is about one novel, film script, collection of essays or nonfiction book a year for the past 50 years.

It is a bit of a shock to realize that he first brought us to Archer City (or Thalia, or sometimes Anarene) with “The Last Picture Show” back in 1966. He had burst on the scene five years earlier with “Horseman, Pass By” (later the film “HUD”) and “Leaving Cheyenne” (later the film “Lovin’ Molly.”) Three novels turned into hit movies in five years is moving at a high rate of speed by any measure.

Mr. McMurtry’s Thalia novels are just a slice of his lifelong fascination with the American West in general and his own roots in a family where his father and eight of his uncles were all cowboys and ranchers.

Thalia is in a part of Texas where the cattlemen find both the grazing and profits increasingly scarce. Yet for a little town that progress passed by, Thalia continues to feel the tremors of the changing outside world. Its people keep on adjusting even as they try to hang on to whatever it was they valued about themselves or their way of life. In 1985, Mr. McMurtry wrote the sequel “Texasville, Duane’s Depressed” (1999), and two years ago, “When the Light Goes.”

In “Rhino Ranch,” Duane Moore finds himself depressed and adrift. He has retired from a life as an oilman and turned over the drilling business to his son. He now lives in Arizona (which he hates) with a second wife, an expert geologist and meth addict whom he loves but who leaves him, first for Vancouver, then for Tajikistan and then for good, in the first 10 pages. Duane moves back to Thalia, first to the big house and vegetable garden where he and his late first wife lived and raised their kids. Soon enough he also spends more time at the primitive little cabin he has kept out on the banks of the Little Wichita River.

Across the river is the Rhino Ranch, where K.K.Rawlings, a leggy Dallas billionairess and basic tough old Texas gal, has decided she will begin breeding the black rhinos that were being hunted into extinction in Africa by crazed European adventurers and hunters who cater to the Asian myth that a powder made from the beast’s horn restores sexual potency.

Roaming rhinos are just one of the annoyances the people of Thalia find unsettling about K.K. and her entourage. Duane’s friendship with her is one of the complications that plague him as he tries to get some fresh control over the increasing irrelevance old age brings to us all.

Two bratty daughters who aspire to what pretends to be high society in the wealthy suburb of North Dallas are another bother. So is his ex-wife. So is another petroleum analyst, who is from Cambodia and briefly moves in with him but then returns home just as abruptly. Other women who are important to him come and go, and some even die on him.

Unlike the women portrayed by other contemporary writers of the American scene, Mr. McMurtry’s women are not conflicted proto-feminists searching for their roles. These are strong gals with strong appetites, earthy humor, fierce opinions and a healthy skepticism about the failings of men. You can see the same women in his homage to the Old West, the “Lonesome Dove” series of novels (and films) or in the two novels “Terms of Endearment” and “The Evening Star.” Duane, on the other hand, remains as he has been, a man raised with certain beliefs that these days don’t work as well as they once did.

It is a temptation to compare Mr. McMurtry’s long and fecund career with that of another great American storyteller — John O’Hara. Like Mr. McMurtry, Mr. O’Hara used his hometown, Pottsville, Pa. The fictional Gibbsville served as a springboard for many of his 200 short stories and novels. He also had the same uncanny ear for dialogue. When reading through Mr. McMurtry’s stories — including the one at hand — a paraphrase comes to mind of Ernest Hemingway’s comment: “If you want to read a book by a man who knows exactly what he is writing about and has written it marvelously well, read … ”

Mr. Hemingway was talking about O’Hara’s “Appointment in Samara.” This book is just as well written and a lot more fun.

James Srodes is a Washington journalist and author of eight books. His e-mail is srodesnews@msn.com.

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