Rhino Ranch

McMurtry’s fifth and final novel about Duane Moore, whose story began in 1966’s “The Last Picture Show.”

Rhino Ranch By Larry McMurtry Simon & Schuster 288 pp., $26

Outside of a movie theater, people never usually know when they’re about to get smacked with the words “The End.” But Larry McMurtry’s giving everyone fair warning.

The Pulitzer- and Academy Award-winning writer told the Dallas Morning News that this month’s new Rhino Ranch – his 30th novel – is probably his last. It’s also a chance for longtime readers to say goodbye to Duane Moore, whom McMurtry started writing about in 1966’s “The Last Picture Show.”

This fifth and final book isn’t titled “Duane’s Depressed,” but it easily could have been. Duane’s friends are dying, his much younger wife has left him (but won’t quit calling), and he can’t seem to find a purpose to fill his days.

Now, he’s returned to Thalia, Texas, a small town full of small minds who regard pedestrians with deep suspicion. If the sight of Moore perambulating on two legs, rather than using his pick-up truck as Henry Ford intended, is once again cause for concern, Thalia’s in for a real shock.

A billionaire (locals keep calling her a billionairess, but I quickly grew to loathe the word) is importing what’s left of Africa’s endangered black rhino population in an effort to save them from poaching. (McMurtry has said he’s based this quixotic effort on a real quest to save the gigantic animals.) And the rich and used-to-getting-her-way K.K. Slater has hired Moore’s old friend and employee Bobby Lee Baxter and cowboy Boyd Cotton as “rhino rangers.”

“They’re not that different from cows,” Boyd decides. “They just weigh more.”

For his part, Duane strikes up an unlikely friendship with the largest bull rhino. “Maybe a few big scary critters is just what this place needs,” he says.

Certainly, for a tiny town, Thalia’s not lacking for colorful types. As Boyd and Bobby Lee work to protect their imported charges, they encounter meth manufacturers, South Africans, Satanists, an aging Texas Ranger, a Bushman, and a teenaged porn star. Duane is bemused and delighted to make the acquaintance of this last, but she doesn’t add a whole lot (besides the ability to skeeve out this apparently naive critic).

“Rhino Ranch” moves at a deceptively contemplative mosey, but by novel’s end, McMurtry has wrapped up a substantial number of characters’ story lines. (Some of them, such as Jenny Marlow, were dealt with a little too swiftly for me.) On the surface, the arc is simple: Thalia tries to adapt to K.K. Slater and her rhinos, and Moore takes the measure of his life. Grandson Willy is his one unalloyed joy. Everything else, besides fishing, pretty much seems to fall short. All the women in Duane’s life are either dead or have left town, and his efforts to find sympathetic substitutes prove short-lived. Boyd’s had to switch to exotic animals, because there’s simply no work left for the aging cowboy. “Often he hauled his quarter horse a hundred miles each way, in order to get a day’s cowboying.” And Bobby Lee? Well, he’s still preoccupied with sex.

When Duane tells his friend (and former psychologist) Honor Carmichael that he feels sort of marginal, she’s rather more blunt. “Here’s another word you might consider: old. Many aging people feel marginal, to some degree. For decades, they’re at the center of things, and then one day they’re not. They slip over to the sidelines. They become marginal, and next thing you know they’re old.”

And, as Bobby Lee tells Boyd, “There’s one big problem with old.” What would that be, the cowboy asks? “It ain’t reversible.”

The “Lonesome Dove” author has bidden goodbye to beloved characters before, and he gives “Rhino Ranch” a wry blend of humor and insight – as well as lots of dead-on dialogue. The novel will also come as a welcome relief for fans who felt that his fourth novel about Duane, 2006’s “When the Light Goes,” wasn’t the send-off for which they were hoping. Not every character gets a long good-bye, but, when they aren’t making sex jokes, the overall tone is one of matter-of-fact elegy.

Take the following exchange between Willy and Duane: “I’ve begun to think that maybe happiness is too much to ask,” Willy said. “It’s not too much to ask,” Duane said. “It’s just that it tends to be temporary.”

McMurtry has never been one to ask readers to feel sorry for his characters, and he’s not about to start now. And for readers sad to see the end of Thalia? Well, 43 years is a pretty good chunk of temporary.

Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor. She blogs at dogeareddosiers.blogspot.com.

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