Texasville picks up life in the small Texas town of Thalia about 30 years after “The Last Picture Show”. That first novel focused on Sonny, this one has his old best friend Duane in the crosshairs. Duane is an oil man who is going broke thanks to the oil glut in the early 1980s. That pessimism and midlife crisis is the lens of this story. While the novel somewhat focuses on the Texasville celebration of the Hardtop county centennial celebration, this novel is really more character driven than plot driven.
Duane’s sharp-tongued wife, Karla, and the rest of his loud extended family of kids, grandkids, and even for a while mother-in-law, is the backdrop of the story.
“On paper, particularly photographic paper, his family looked wonderful. All of them were amazingly photogenic. The disparity between how they looked in pictures and how they behaved in real life was a subject for much thought, and Duane had given it not a little in the many long days when the phone rang only once or twice. His conclusion was that the camera lied, although Karla claimed it didn’t.” [p 60]
One of McMurtry’s hallmarks is strong women and this novel has them in spades. In addition to Karla, who constantly criticizes Duane, his glamorous and famous high school sweetheart, Jacy, returns as well.
“While he was becoming rich, the women in his life had become outspoken. He had stopped being rich, but they had not stopped being outspoken.” [p 8]
At times, the novel swerves into Peyton Place-like plotting with just about every character having an affair. Duane himself has a couple of girlfriends, though his problems take the starch out of him. His interactions with Karla revolve quite a bit around her reaction to his real or imagined girlfriends.
But those dalliances are outweighed by McMurtry’s brilliant use of dialog. Once he gets his character talking the reader is in for a treat. As I noted in my reading notes about “Rhino Ranch” – the final book in the Thalia chronology – McMurtry’s technique in these novels can be confusing. We start off in the present with a thought or conversation then drop back in time as one of the characters is remembering a conversation that took place months or years ago. This technique works in ways: first, this is how life works; we live in the past, present, and future, so the approach is life like. Second, it works so much better when a story moves forward through talk rather than exposition. As I learned in my English literature courses so many years ago: show, don’t tell. Dialog is more immediate and shows what is happening as opposed to dry narration.
I’m always on the lookout for great metaphors, similes, and imagery in the novels I read. This does not disappoint.
“Silence spread like a winter cloud across the Dairy Queen.” [p 256
“Duane felt his anger rise more rapidly. It was as if he had poured beer in a glass too quickly.”[p 271]
I love his extended metaphor of his life and midlife crisis:
“Everything, it seemed, had been washed too many times, had worn too thin. His friendships and his little romances all seemed sad and fragile to him. They had once been the comfortable and reliable fabric that was his life. But the fabric became too old to bear the weight of all the bodies and personalities and needs of the people who tossed and turned on it. At some point a toenail or an elbow had poked through, and it was all tearing.” [p 489]
Even though I read this book years ago, I couldn’t put it down on this second go round. Even without the plot-driven elements that make up his masterpiece “Lonesome Dove” the pacing here is brisk and sure. It may not be McMurtry’s best work – go to “Lonesome Dove”, “The Last Picture Show”, “Terms of Endearment”, and “Horseman Pass By” for his best – it is a fun read.
I started the Thalia series by watching “The Last Picture Show” on TV a few weeks ago. Rather than rereading it after the movie, I launched into this novel and plan to follow up with “Duane’s Depressed.”, “When The Light Goes”, and “Rhino Ranch”. In addition to keeping up with the interesting characters it will be a spotlight on how McMurtry’s storytelling changed over the years.