For its first 200 pages or so, Rhino Ranch seems like it should be titled Larry McMurtry’s Guide To Having Sex With Women Much Younger Than You. It’s the purported final chapter in the saga of Duane Moore, the main character from The Last Picture Show, who traveled like Rabbit Angstrom through three other novels, and winds up in this slim volume as an old, old man. Perhaps the most episodic novel yet from a writer who tends to write episodic novels, Rhino Ranch sometimes feels more like a collection of aborted tries at short stories starring these characters than it does the conclusion to their stories.
Since Picture Show, McMurtry’s returns to Thalia, Texas, have offered diminishing returns, and this feels like it could be the least of the series for most of its length. But in the book’s final third, as the characters McMurtry has built over four novels begin to pass on, McMurtry reveals his hand. This is an old-man novel, about an old man regarding his life and the way nothing makes sense to him anymore. Thalia has become even more close-minded than Duane thought it was, and few of his friends are still alive.
While those last 90 pages are beautifully done, for the most part, the rest of the novel is only intermittently fascinating, as McMurtry picks up plot threads almost as quickly as he tosses others aside. Some, like the tale of an old rhino Duane befriends, are fun. Others, like the tale of some Sri Lankan deli owners, don’t work as well. The characters, even the newer ones, are written with an assured flair, but the flirtations between Duane and his cronies and women barely out of their teens lapses into self-parody well before the novel is even halfway over.
Still, Rhino Ranch works almost in spite of itself. Its central device—a ranch near Thalia set up by billionaire K.K. Slater to preserve the African black rhino—gradually reveals itself as a surprisingly rich metaphor for men like Duane, possessed of honor and responsibility, and now a dying breed surrounded by decay and meth-heads. “I need to be closer to my ghosts,” a character says late in the novel. At that point, most of what McMurtry is up to crystallizes. Duane, too, has returned home to be near his ghosts, and the longer he stays, the more they grow in number.