A trucker takes to the open road - on foot

Larry McMurtry concludes the trilogy that began with 'The Last PictureShow.'

DUANE'S DEPRESSED By Larry McMurtry Simon & Schuster 432 pp., $26 Ever since the Pilgrims left England, Americans have loved stories about people who wander away from it all. In "Walden," Henry David Thoreau left his family's pencil factory and went to the woods to live deliberately. Nathaniel Hawthorne's Young Goodman Brown promised his new wife he'd be gone just one night. John Updike's Rabbit Angstrom drove away from his dull home without even saying goodbye. And now the hero of Larry McMurtry's "Duane's Depressed" has parked his brand-new pickup truck and started walking down the road. Of course, this isn't just exercise: It's revolution. At 62, Duane has achieved the sort of success most people aim for. Decades of hard work in the oil business have earned him a life of prosperity in Thalia, Texas, but something's wrong. For one, the house is packed with his trailer-trash children and their whiny kids. The fire has sputtered out of his 40-year marriage to well-meaning, but controlling Karla. He laments that "all his life he had worked too hard to allow himself the time to be curious, to learn things that were interesting rather than merely useful." As an innocent act of rebellion against vague feelings of disappointment, Duane parks his pickup truck and takes to the road on foot. In this oil town, that's a small step for man, but a giant leap for mankind. Twelve neighbors drive by, and all 12 offer him a ride. " 'No thanks,' Duane said, 12 times. 'I'm just out for a walk.' 'Out for a what?'.... Duane thinks, "The country had slowly come to accept C-SPAN and computers - in a few months they could probably be brought to accept a walker, too." Acceptance from his confrontational wife, however, doesn't look so promising. She explodes in a burst of accusations, worries, and guilt. "He's too old for a midlife crisis," she snaps, "unless he plans to live to be 124." When Duane moves to a small cabin six miles away, she's sure he's gained a mistress or lost his mind. Out of curiosity, Duane rides his new bicycle to a town 18 miles away, rents a cheap room in a seedy hotel, and begins therapy with a doctor who prescribes three volumes of Proust. Duane may be depressed, but readers won't be. McMurtry, who won a Pulitzer Prize for "Lonesome Dove" in 1986, is the sort of double-jointed writer who can stretch toward tragedy and comedy. His slapstick slips and slides even through the painful passages of this tender novel. He's outflagged Fannie Flagg. A mechanic takes off his toe trying to shoot a bug. The town's banker scalps himself with a homemade bomb. A secretary floods the office when she faints onto the water cooler. Considering their bizarre injuries, amputations, and illnesses, we're lucky anyone's left alive in little Thalia, where McMurtry also set "The Last Picture Show" and "Texasville." (Scribner is reissuing both in paperback.) This final novel of the trilogy doesn't have a plot so much as a place and the zany characters who inhabit it. For a while, the book teeters on the edge of easy psychological resolution, but McMurtry jumps back from the precipice of that clich and gives Duane all the depth and complexity he deserves. This is a novel that stomps out all our narrow expectations about retirement. At a point in life when many people think about settling in, Duane marches against complaisance, others' expectations, and even tragedy. As the exhilaration of such bold freedom alternately enlivens and terrifies him, he walks. Ah: walks. Walks. Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to charlesr@csps.com

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