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Going the Way of the Picture Show

By Tim Gautreaux
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, August 15, 2009

RHINO RANCH

By Larry McMurtry

Simon & Schuster. 278 pp. $26

An old Mississippi mule trader by the name of Ray Lum was fond of saying, "You live and learn. Then you die and forget it all." That about sums up the feeling the reader is left with at the end of Larry McMurtry's elegiac "Rhino Ranch." McMurtry has published nearly 30 novels since 1961 and won a Pulitzer for "Lonesome Dove" (1985). He has written some of the best western fiction in the canon and has made a cottage industry of demystifying the West and shrinking its big skies down to size.

In "Rhino Ranch" the tale begins to unfold of a billionaire Texas woman who wants to preserve as many African rhinos as she can buy. She transports them to Thalia, Tex., with the notion of passing them off as a tourist attraction. Several colorful characters hang around a watchtower on the preserve, drink whiskey and kill time.

One of these is Duane Moore, whom McMurtry's readers first met in "The Last Picture Show" (1966). He soon becomes a good friend of K.K. Slater, the 52-year-old patron of the rhinos. The animal park subject of the novel never seems to go very far. We don't find out much about rhinos, other than they have to be penned in strong fences and don't like to eat hay. Besides collecting and fencing them in, the owners themselves seem to have only vague notions of what the enterprise is about.

One day a rhino breaks out and shadows Duane for a while, and some local yahoos shoot another and saw off its horn, but neither event is fleshed out or developed with much tension. The storytelling skills of, say, McMurtry's "Buffalo Girls" (1990), which was full of great detail and a sense of people having something to lose, are missing.

Gradually, the rhinos fade out of the story, which is unfortunate because they are more believable than the weeping urologist and crackpot Texas ranger and other characters who wander in and out of this plot. It turns out that the story is not about animal conservation but about Duane and how he deals with reaching the age of 70 and being alone in the world. His home town looks on him as a stranger, his old compadres are passing away, and Thalia is turning from a real place into a plaything for a bored rich woman and her rhinos.

Duane thinks he needs romance, and the narrative introduces a catalogue of female companions including his present wife, a nubile 29-year-old who divorces him early in the novel, probably because he had a heart attack while having sex with her; his much longed-for lesbian psychiatrist; a 17-year-old "adult film" princess who is a master of two-bit porn language; a longshank cook for K.K. Slater who offers her charms in Duane's garden; a perky kid reporter young enough to be his granddaughter who likes to do other people's laundry as a hobby; and a 40-something computer genius, survivor of the Cambodian massacres. It is a mystery why any one of these women is attracted to a superannuated white-bread character like Duane, though he is rich.

By the middle of the novel it's obvious that Duane is suffering from the old malaise that afflicts unanchored souls. He spends his time wondering what to do with himself, instead of doing anything of substance. His hobbies seem to be walking the roads around Thalia and starting books he can't understand. He's mystified by the fact that he's sexually unwise and old, yet unhappy. A heart patient, he doesn't seem to see the danger of getting drunk and eating his share of barbecue and chicken-fried steaks. His grandson is the one sane and normal person in the narrative; his take on the Moore clan is that they're "people who spend their lives doing exactly what they want to do, regardless of the feelings and needs of others."

McMurtry is good at elegy, whether for the ways of western life or a petered-out oilman. But Duane's diminishing world would be more affecting if McMurtry didn't write about him as if everybody's read the other novels in which he appears. He leaves a lot of stuff out, assuming that we already know Duane, the other characters and what Thalia looks like. At times the prose seems summary in nature, imparting a "let's get this over with" quality.

That's too bad, because McMurtry is about important business here. In "Rhino Ranch" he treats his many loyal readers to a last roundup of characters so everyone can have a sense of closure, a view of what happens to them. His ardent fans, the ones who have been on the trail with him since "The Last Picture Show" or "Texasville," will have their fill.

Gautreaux's new novel is "The Missing."

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