Dallas, TX –
Texas author Larry McMurtry once said that "doggedness" was his best trait. It was also, he said, his worst trait.
In his new novel, When the Light Goes, McMurtry doggedly returns to a character he seemed done with years ago. You may recall good ol' boy Duane Moore and his more sensitive buddy Sonny as the two high-schoolers in The Last Picture Show, the celebrated coming-of-age novel that in 1966 began McMurtry's series of books about Thalia, Texas, the stand-in town for his own Archer City, 100 miles northwest of Fort Worth. You may recall them best from director Peter Bogdanovich's remarkable 1971 film version - bleak yet tender, the one with Jeff Bridges as Duane and Cybil Shepherd as Jacy, the high-school hottie. If you know only the film, though, you don't know just how mocking the novel is in its satire of withered small-town Texas life. McMurtry later said he'd written it in a fit of pique towards his hometown, but it's actually emblematic of his deeply ambivalent attitude toward Texas.
McMurtry's books are often about departures or deaths, underlining the passing of the Old West or the need to leave this one - just look at their titles: In a Narrow Grave, Leaving Cheyenne, All My Friends are Going to be Strangers, Lonesome Dove.
Twenty years after The Last Picture Show, McMurtry returned to Thallia with the novel, Texasville, and what had been satire became outright farce with a middle-aged and married Duane trying to put on a ridiculous Texas history pageant for what had become an oilfield boomtown gone bust. The lively novel is full of bankruptcies and comic philanderings, but everyone pretty much ends up where they began. That's not the case with the third novel, Duane's Depressed from 1999. Duane has good reason to be down in the dumps. Jacy dies. Duane's wife, Karla, dies. Even Sonny dies, but then, sensitive males never survive long in McMurtry's Texas, whether it's the brutal Texas of the frontier or the modern Texas of empty materialism.
So what are we to make of When the Light Goes? Even McMurtry's publisher thought Duane's Depressed was the last chapter in the Thalia trilogy. At the end, Duane finally left home for a trip to Egypt. He'd been trying to leave ever since the time in The Last Picture Show he signed up for military duty in Korea.
But in When the Light Goes, Duane comes back. Why, we might wonder, because these days, his son runs his oil-drilling business and Thalia itself is "just a miserable, windblown, drying-up town." Well, there is Duane's unrequited hankering for his psychiatrist. McMurtry has long had a yen for strong, sexually provocative women, and Duane, lucky dog, has two of them here, his 50-something shirnk and his 20-something assistant. As a result, McMurty may have hit a new high for explicit sex talk in one of his novels.
But Duane doesn't enjoy himself much. It turns out living in Texas is killling him -his chicken-fried arteries are in serious need of bypass surgery. In the past decade, McMurtry has written some of his finest essays and histories, won an Oscar for co-adapting Brokeback Mountain and continued writing for TV - Comanche Moon will be a mini-series later this year. As a novelist, his continued dedication to chornicling the changes in his home state is inspiring.
But When the Light Goes feels dog-tired.
Jerome Weeks is a former book columnist for the Dallas Morning News and writes about books for artsjournal.com.
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