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Weekly Alibi Where's Your Pick-up, Boy?

Larry McMurtry's Duane's Depressed

By Mladen Baudrand

JANUARY 17, 2000:  Having once lived in a small oil town for nine months, I never thought that I would enjoy going back to one, but I did enjoy seeing Thalia, Texas, through the eyes of this book's main character, Duane. I could relate to Duane's discovery that walking, rather than driving in a pick-up, in such a town attracts unwanted attention. Oil towns like Thalia, as we learn from Duane, are pick-up country. You don't go for a casual stroll down to the Dairy Queen. You drive over in your pick-up. It's a pretty simple rule.

Of course, every once in a while somebody breaks the rules. In this story, nobody expects 62-year-old Duane to be the one to go against the grain. Duane is a pillar of his community, perhaps one of the most liked and respected men in Thalia. He has a wife, Karla, to whom he has been married for 40 years and with whom he gets along. He is surrounded by children and grandchildren who love him. He owns an oil company that has always amply fed the entire family with enough to spare for weekend shopping trips to Santa Fe. One of his only faults is that he thinks literature is a "road atlas or a fishing magazine or something about boats," but nobody in Thalia is going to hold that against him. After all, Duane possesses more common sense in his thumbnail than most Ivy League professors with a thorough understanding of Thoreau.

So why, after 62 years of stalwart service to family and community, is Duane rebelling like Henry David by dropping out of his life? Why is he forsaking his pick-up in favor of walking everywhere? Why has he decided to start living alone away from his family in a little cabin outside of town, and why does he turn the family business over to his druggie son, Dickie? All of Thalia, Texas, wants to know, and you will want to know also. Has Duane lost it?

I won't reveal that to you, but I will say that Duane doesn't start his own survivalist cult, or track down Dr. John Ronald Brown for some body modification, or even go on tour with Phish. Instead, Duane begins to think about his life. At first, he struggles. We learn that Duane "wasn't used to thinking -- particularly to thinking about himself." Then Duane has the realization that "probably thinking should be approached in an orderly way, done with a little care." After Duane warms up his dormant mind, he realizes that perhaps he should see a psychiatrist. Henceforth, he visits Dr. Honor Carmichael in neighboring Wichita Falls, rents a room in a seedy motel in that same town to facilitate his therapy, experiences transference, reads Thoreau and Proust on the psychiatrist's recommendation, and generally becomes an emotional wreck as would be expected of anyone who had ignored his feelings for over 60 years.

Larry McMurtry's portrayal of Duane the oil mogul is funny yet compassionate, written from the perspective of a man who grew up with men like Duane. McMurtry, in fact was born in Wichita Falls and attended North Texas State. His familiarity with this part of the world is evident by his ease in describing the landscape, its culture, and its inhabitants. His writing style is refreshingly readable and laid back like a country ride; moreover, he seems confident enough in his own skills to not waste words on pretentious vocabulary. He rarely shows off. At his sassiest, he makes reference to one of his own books when he has Karla, Duane's wife, chide Duane for trying to read Proust: "You can't read a book that long. The only book you ever read was Lonesome Dove, and if the miniseries had been on first you wouldn't have read that one, either."

When you've won a Pulitzer Prize, as McMurtry has, you're entitled to an occasional indulgence of this sort. I do feel compelled to warn those of you out there who revel in complication to not pick this book up expecting to be dazzled at every turn by a labyrinthine plot . However, if you respect no-nonsense writing, you'll enjoy this sincere, light-hearted glimpse into a Texas oil man's search for meaning.

(Pocket Books, paper, $7.99)

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