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Weighty Subjects, Light Touch In McMurtry's 'Rhino'

'Rhino' 200

In the pantheon of bumbling male protagonists who develop over the course of multiple novels, Updike's Rabbit and Roth's Zuckerman reign supreme. But a sleeper favorite is Larry McMurtry's Duane Moore, the genial, football-playing antihero of McMurtry's spare, gentle novel of a small Texas town, The Last Picture Show.

That classic spilled over into suburban burlesque with its follow-up, Texasville, then shifted to the arena of philosophical crisis with Duane's Depressed. Now in the fourth — and presumably final — novel of the series, we find the inhabitants of Thalia, Texas, grappling with a far more unpredictable foreign influence than the price of crude: a herd of African rhinos in a preserve that a wealthy lady rancher sites on the outskirts of town.

Followers of the shambling Duane have by now seen him through many incarnations: feckless high school heartthrob, beleaguered dad, small-time politician, big-time oilman. In Rhino Ranch,he is a weary retiree and cuckold who's been left by his wife, Annie, and now eschews their massive estate for a gritty cabin, walking up and down the flatlands nearby, considering what he has done wrong.

On these treks, he is inexplicably shadowed by Double Aught, the massive patriarch of the rhino herd, who moseys alongside Duane like the 3-ton embodiment of his own heavy thoughts.

The Thalia of the present is also inhabited by McMurtry's patented brand of wacky misfits: K.K. Slater, the wealthy heiress; Honor Moore, Duane's former paramour and shrink, now a lesbian; Casey Kincaid, a porn star; Willy, Duane's Rhodes-scholar grandson; an imported African San Bushman called Sam of the San; Boyd Cotton, a grizzly old rancher; and, of course, the mysterious Double Aught.

McMurtry depicts them passing through Duane's life much like the lunchtime crowd at Texasville'sDairy Queen, subjecting him to, alternately, seduction, admiration, dismissal and abject scorn, revealing in brief sketches how Duane's station may change but his odd centrality to Thalia does not.

While McMurtry is best known for epic, weighty works like Terms of Endearment and Lonesome Dove, he has always interspersed his oeuvre with this type of wandering, fluffily comic narrative. Readers new to this strain of McMurtry's works may find the quick shifts of scene and wry, off-hand dialogue a strange departure. But one of Duane's prevailing traits is that he has never been able to take himself entirely seriously. McMurtry's send-off shows that his creator is quite unable to as well.

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