Reading: Rhino Ranch by Larry McMurtry

Rhino Ranch

Author: Larry McMurtry
Copyright: 2009
Type: Fiction
Finished: April 28, 2020

Rating: Rating: ★★★★ 4 out of 5 stars.

Image from Amazon

Ironically my longest write up of the Duane Moore series is for the shortest volume. This final novel of the Thalia/Duane Moore trilogy is a study of the tension between the small town of Thalia and outsiders. Duane is pulled back into Thalia’s orbit in part by entropy and perhaps his lack of imagination.

“For much of his life Thalia had mostly depressed Duane, but lately he had developed a kind of tolerance for it. Maybe it was just that as the funeral bell came closer to tolling for him he felt a tendency to linger in what had been, or maybe still was, home.” [P 24]

His very rich wife from “When the Light Goes”, Annie, is now his ex-wife. The super rich K.K. Slater has purchased an enormous plot of land for a recovery ranch for the black rhino. Duane acts as an unofficial advisor to K.K. advising her how to become part of the town, knowing that they will never accept her. If you weren’t born in Thalia, you are an outsider. Even Duane’s wife of 30 years or more was never fully accepted because she moved there as a child. 

“I am worried,” Duane said. “What I know is that Thalia isn’t interested in changing as much as K.K. wants it to change.” [p 181]

One night after a splendid dinner on the second floor of K.K.’s new home – the renovated old town motel – Duane is reminded how he is caught in the middle of the two sides. No one from town acknowledged his wave when he entered K.K.’s home. Later, 

“When they got up to leave Duane saw that the crowd  [watching the dinner party] in the parking lot of the Kwik-Sack had  grown. There were maybe twenty-five people there, and what was wrong with the picture was that he ought to have been one of the crowd at the Kwik-Sack, not one of the people eating snail’s eggs and drinking brandy on K.K. Slater’s penthouse with Honor Carmichael.” [p 184]

The rich don’t get off much better in McMurtry’s story. When things get a little tough, or when they tire of their pet project, they are apt to just leave on a moment’s notice. Annie divorces Duane in a short phone call when she finds another plaything. We are held hostage by our surroundings:

“She [K.K.]  was no more to blame for being born rich than the watchers in the Kwik-Sack were for being born poor, or being brought up ignorant.” [p 195]

This is a sad novel; everyone except his long-time friend Bobby Lee dies and the meth epidemic is one of the few thriving industries in the area. Layered on top of the tension Duane realizes that he no longer has a purpose in life. Most everything he considers doing to improve himself, including enrolling in a college course, don’t happen. 

This is a bleak view on small town Texas life. To get a good idea of this small town featured in seven of McMurtry’s novels, go to Google Maps and search for Archer City and scroll around earth view and street view. But it’s a view that McMurtry well understands having been born and raised there – Thalia’s prototype. Starting with Horseman Pass By – adapted for film as Hud – through Rhino Ranch, McMurtry has written about Thalia for 48 years:1961 – 2009. McMurtry’s writing of the  Duane Moore story spans 43 years:

  • The Last Picture Show: 1966
  • Texasville: 1989
  • Duane’s Depressed: 1999
  • When the Light Goes: 2007
  • Rhino Ranch: 2009

I am put off by the opening conversations between Duane and at least three young women who blatantly come-on to him. Now, I’m not a prude; I just don’t think it is realistic. The writing of Rhino Ranch is demonstrative of McMurtry’s changing style over the years. This is a short novel composed of short chapters; averaging about 4 pages/chapter with some chapters less than a page long. On the one hand I feel cheated by the lack of long passages and chapters of events and scenery – think the long section of Gus McCrae chasing after Blue Duck to rescue Lorena. On the other, the brief chapters serve to move the pace along. 

Regardless of the shortcomings I’ve loved reading McMurtry’s novels since a boss of mine – Tom Lloyd – introduced him to me in 1976. I love his writing style, which comes up to a subject from the side instead of straight on – usually with a sense of humor. A small example is when Bobby Lee catches a large bass when he and Duane are fishing one day. It turns out to be very big news in the region. Instead of saying something direct like “this was big news in the area” McMurtry writes:

“The reaction of the press left little doubt that big bass were newsworthy in the Possum Kingdom area.” [P 21]

Don’t read this as a one-off. Start with “The Last Picture Show” and move forward through the series until you get tired of it. For what it’s worth here are my favorite Larry McMurtry novels; they serve as a great introduction to his wonderful storytelling.

  1. Lonesome Dove. His Pulitzer Prize winner.
  2. Terms of Endearment
  3. Horseman Pass By
  4. The Last Picture Show
  5. Cadillac Jack – not one of his most famous but a personal favorite

If you’ve made it this far, take a look at my initial – and quite different – impression of the novel when I first read it in 2009.

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