Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Friday, August 28, 2009

"Rhino Ranch" by Larry McMurtry

This book may be among the most poorly-written books I've ever read. It caught my eye at the library mainly because of the author's name. McMurtry's Lonesome Dove is a pretty great book, and I also once read Pretty Boy Floyd, which he co-wrote. I actually picked up Rhino Ranch for Hud but figured I might enjoy it too.

I was wrong. It's absolutely nothing like Lonesome Dove, beyond the fact that it originates here in Texas. I haven't yet quite put my finger on why, mainly because I don't remember enough about it, but this book made me think of that weird mystery by Kinky Friedman, the title of which I don't recall. (Side note: I am so glad Friedman lost the election for governor of Texas. His book seemed awfully autobiographical, and if he is really as much like his protagonist as I suspect, he's too weird to be in politics).

The writing in Lonesome Dove was rich and nuanced, creating a masterfully woven story. Rhino Ranch seems to just be thrown together without much thought. In comparison, the colors clash, the textures gall, and there are loose threads hanging out all over the place. The prose is terse and spare, but it doesn't work the way it did for Ernest Hemingway. It reads like a first draft that was never revised, although it needed revising badly. McMurtry frequently repeats himself unnecessarily (K.K. speaks, draining her brandy, speaks again, and drains her brandy). He contradicts himself (Dal goes back to Thailand to visit her family, although it's just her children and grandchildren, as her parents are dead; six pages later--and definitely not in a flashback--her mother is dying). People and situations pop up out of the blue, only to inexplicably disappear, usually never to be heard of again. Woman after woman lines up to seduce the main character, Duane Moore, with words as ridiculous as the characters behind them (the billionairess, the teenaged porn star, the long-legged cook). Nearly every character ends up dying sooner or later during this book, but not in the cathartic manner of a Greek tragedy; not even so that the reader cares remotely. It's more like everyone is just too old to bother living anymore--kind of like the Journey reunion. (They did it much better the first time around and the rehash is just sad).

I didn't realize until I read the flap inside the front cover that this is the last book of a saga beginning with The Last Picture Show (with which I am not familiar) from 1966. I may have missed out on a lot by not reading the three previous books (maybe in those others the story was actually fleshed out?) but I don't think I was left with any confusion or lingering questions from not reading the back story. Besides, after reading this one, I have absolutely no desire to read the previous books.

I found myself wondering what the point of it all was. Which may have been the point, as the main character finds himself without a purpose in life. This story wandered along as aimlessly as Duane himself. Dare I say that McMurtry didn't try very hard with this book, that his heart wasn't in writing it, perhaps even that he has lost his own purpose in life?

I almost hoped for an elaborate punch line at the end, incorporating all of the bizarre elements that had been thrown into the story all willy-nilly, but alas it was not to be. The end of the book, and really the entire thing to some extent, read like those little postscripts they flash up on the screen before the credits roll in movies that have been based on real life, giving you a brief blurb about how the characters' stories continued (or didn't, as the case may be). Maybe with this book McMurtry was merely trying to tie up loose ends and bring the saga to a close once and for all, but he introduced too many new threads for this to be the case. If this book had been rewritten, edited, and fleshed out A LOT more, it would have been a much longer book, but at least it might have been a passably good read. Too bad it wasn't.

I can think of one nice thing to say about the book. It was fun to come across references to things like "a flea market in Canton, Texas," which any good East Texas resident (even transplants who have only lived here for 14 years) knows refers to the First Monday Trade Days. It was like being privy to an inside joke. But that didn't happen nearly often enough to convince me to like the book. Oh, and one more nice thing: the cover is pretty.

At first I was thinking this book might take me a while to read... I had only made it through 12 pages and wasn't feeling really driven to read more; but it didn't take much longer before I decided to power through it just to get it over with. Hud was reading it at the same time as me, so we kind of had to take turns. Funny thing is, he attacked it with the same attitude that I did.

Final verdict: Ugh. I am so glad I can now move on to something that is worth my time. The next book I read will most likely be greatly enhanced in my opinion merely by comparison with this tripe. This book, for me, can be summed up by a quote on page 83 (it actually refers to the character Bobby Lee, but I've edited it slightly to serve my purposes): I didn't dislike this book. I just got tired of listening to it.

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