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Austin Chronicle Book Reviews

FEBRUARY 23, 1999: 

Duane's Depressed by Larry McMurtry, Simon & Schuster, $26 hard

Larry McMurtry, Texas' preeminent novelist for almost 40 years, announced last year that he would write one more novel, his 20th. What may be McMurtry's final novel, Duane's Depressed, wraps up the Thalia trilogy that began with The Last Picture Show (1966) and continued with Texasville (1987). Despite the apparent finality of this event in the writing life of Larry McMurtry, another book, Crazy Horse, a biography of the famous Sioux warrior, appears, short-circuiting any hand wringing over McMurtry's announcement. These two books indicate that McMurtry is indeed alive and well, tracking the lives of his own fictional creations and one of the most elusive Indian figures as well.

And the two disparate lives coincide in at least one way in McMurtry's imagination. Duane Moore, erstwhile lover of Jacy Farrow in the first novel, successful then failing oilman in the second, is 62 years old and dissatisfied as the third novel begins. Like Crazy Horse, who followed his own counsel and often went off alone on vision quests, Duane decides to trail a singular life and dispossess himself of extraneous things, particularly his pickup truck, and to move out of his giant house filled with kids and grandkids to a cabin six miles outside of Thalia. Duane is a "rebel without a car," as Don Graham notes in his review in TheTexas Observer, or at least without a pickup, and in conscious emulation of Henry David Thoreau, tries to simplify his life by refusing motorized transportation.

The ragged lives of his family and friends intrude. His son, Dickie, is getting out of drug rehab for the third time, while his other son, Jack, roams the country trapping wild pigs and studies survivalist tracts. His daughters, Nellie and Julie, deposit their children with Duane and his wife, Karla, as they wander to places like Cancun. Ruth Popper, wife of the football coach in the first novel and aging jogger in the second, now in her 90s and almost blind, still works for Duane's oil company. She teams up with Bobby Lee, one of Duane's employees anxious about having lost a testicle, to question Duane's state of mind. Duane's home life recalls Robert Earl Keen's now-classic song, "Merry Christmas From the Family," while the new life he seeks suggests the Kennedys' "Just Like Henry David." The novel stretches readers from the farcical, over-the-top discussions of Bobby Lee's lost ball to the deeply human concerns of an aging man who wakes up to discover that his life has been meaningless.

Duane seeks and finds a shaman, or at least a psychiatrist, Honor Carmichael, to help him understand his mental state. Her prescription is literary, directing Duane to read Marcel Proust's 3,000-page Remembrance of Things Past as a way to evaluate a long history of memory. Just as Duane seems about to reach some personal understanding, the world crashes in on him, short-circuiting his quest, but this novel about depression is not depressing, for it traces the possibilities of remaking the self, despite lifelong habits that are materialistic and mind-numbing.

For example, after a life driving pickup trucks and throwing beer cans along roadsides, Duane begins to attend to littering's desecration of the natural world when he becomes a dedicated walker. Instead, he creates a magnificent garden in his backyard, growing organic vegetables that he then gives away to anyone willing to pick them and respect the new Eden he cultivated.

Craxy Horse by Larry McMurtry, Lipper/Viking, $19.95 hard

Duane's Depressed, then, represents new directions for the writer who has lived a life mostly critical of his home country. The harsh satire of The Last Picture Show, attacking the boredom and small-mindedness of small-town Texas, and which gave way to an almost condescending paternalism in Texasville, has come round to a redemptive vision, possible even to such a person as Duane Moore, an unschooled product of a materialistic culture and aesthetically challenged landscape. After undergoing a heart-bypass operation in 1991 that led to prolonged depression, McMurtry says that it was as if his old life slipped away from him. This new and perhaps final novel blazes a trail along the byways of a new life.

McMurtry's biography of Crazy Horse indicates another new direction, for although he has published two collections of nonfiction, this new book is his first monograph. Here he combines his considerable skill as a storyteller with a life of reading to make sense of the life of Crazy Horse, a man about whom reams have been written but still little is known. McMurtry sketches the outlines of the life of the famous Sioux warrior from his birth near the Belle Fourche River in South Dakota around 1840, through his young childhood when he was known as Light-Skinned Boy, through his adolescence and first vision quest when he took his father's name and had visions that led him to fight with a rock behind his ear. McMurtry also describes the doomed love of Black Buffalo Woman, his fateful meeting with General George Armstrong Custer at Little Big Horn in 1876, and finally his death at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, on September 6, 1877, stabbed by an Army private while his arms were held by Little Big Man.

McMurtry makes it clear that many of the details about the famed Oglala leader are obscure, but the legend speaks both to history and contemporary times: "Crazy Horse's legend grew in the main from a broken people's need to remember and believe in unbroken heroes, those who remained true to the precepts of their fathers and to the ways of the culture and the traditions which bred them." McMurtry's biography kicks off the Penguin Lives series and points to this new path along the writing route of a man who once said he was driven to write daily.

Both of these books demonstrate the mature work of a man who has spent a lifetime with books. Although some of the farce in Duane's Depressed is tiresome, it is the most satisfying McMurtry novel with a contemporary setting in years. And although occasionally McMurtry's use of contemporary terms (like CEO) in Crazy Horse is jarring, the biography is compelling because of the power of the narrative McMurtry uses to tell the story. If the fiction trail has cooled for him, we can expect to see more biography, memoir (a long meditation on writing tentatively called Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen is in the works), and filmscripts, for it is clear that Larry McMurtry has many lives to live.

-- Mark Busby

Mark Busby is Director of the Center for the Study of the Southwest and Professor of English at Southwest Texas State University. He is the author of Larry McMurtry and the West: An Ambivalent Relationship (University of North Texas Press, 1995).

Werewolves in Their Youth by Michael Chabon, Random House, $22.95 hard

Judging from all signs and signals, young Michael Chabon is about to become one of those most rare and puzzling figures in American society -- the literary superstar. As Werewolves in Their Youth, his new collection of stories, becomes available in bookstores this month, two of his previous oeuvres are already being adapted for the big and silvery screen. Wonder Boys, the film version of his second novel, will even star that ever-so-wondrous boy himself Robert Downey Jr. alongside Michael Douglas and Frances McDormand. Add to these projects a new novel titled Kavalier and Clay, scheduled for an early 2000 release, and you have one very styling and profiling writer. Fortunately, the blitz and storm of Chabon's pen and pocketbooks will yield no such fluff as How Michael Got His Groove Back -- unlike most inky stars among us, Mister Chabon's work is entirely legitimate literature that merits much of the attention it earns. Werewolves in Their Youth, a curious and sober study of personal failures of every sort -- emotional, sexual, and financial included -- is a good meeting-point for those new to his measured and studious work.

The most significant quality of these stories is that, despite his reputation as a young and rising star, he writes with only judicious bits of the zest you'd expect from a new master exploring the tunnels and turns of his prose. Instead, he is careful, moving along with the patience of somebody older. In "Spikes," for instance, he details the repetitive actions of little Bengt Thorkelson as he swings his old plastic pipe swiftly against pennies tossed into the air, missing and cursing his lack of skill on the baseball diamond. As this perpetual motion continues, a neighbor named Kohn, who is lost in the process of his divorce, watches on, late as he is for a meeting with his wife's ferocious attorney. For a number of pages, the scene continues as such, with Chabon providing the two with uneasy dialogue and coloring their world with all the malaise it is attempting to hide: "This spring weather was something different, hardly weather at all -- a thin, drifting blanket of sparkling grayness that would not prevent islanders from mowing their lawns, washing their cars, or working on their home-run swings." As the story progresses, however, Chabon patiently reveals their great secrets -- Bengt is the nephew of a great baseball player who fell into shame by killing a man with his pitch on the field. He is forced to wear six pairs of socks in order to fit into his uncle's old cleats and play in a league where he is among the worst sluggers. Finally, the story turns and settles as Kohn becomes an afternoon father to Bengt, taking him to practice and sitting among the bleachers of parents, just one face of failure under disguise.

The parade of dysfunction continues much in the same way throughout the whole book. "Son of the Wolfman," perhaps the most moving story of the collection, follows the deterioration of a man whose wife decides not to abort the baby she conceives during a savage rape. In "Mrs. Box," a fresh divorcee plots to steal precious gems from his ex-wife's painfully senile grandmother, a woman whose jewels are her only successful mnemonic devices. Even the curiously titled "Werewolves in Their Youth" is the story of an ostracized, overweight boy who is forced to deal with the break-up of his parents (while watching them having loveless sex) and the delusions of his only sympathetic classmate, who believes he is an actual werewolf. Chabon's only striking weaknesses come as he explores the sexual roles of men and women: "Christy had agreed to join herself in perpetuity to a man whose touch left her vagina as dry as a fist." His rather trite macho complexes and fantasies are easy enough to forgive, though, especially when compared to his countless sparkling and wistful moments. Though you may want to perk up with the Teletubbies or Star Jones' new affirmative opus, You Have to Stand for Something or You'll Fall for Anything, after reading Chabon, his well-paced collection of stories help to make him an even more rare figure in American society than he seems at first blush -- a literary superstar you can truly respect. -- David Garza

South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami, Knopf, $22 hard

At some point, and to greater or lesser extents, we are all drawn to a land west of the sun. Whether you call it nirvana, heaven, or nothingness, it is the land which awaits when you toss aside your thoughts, your feelings, life as you've known it, and head into the unknown. South of the Border lies somewhere else -- in life, or in an idealized vision of life, firmly grounded in the experience of this world. In his latest novel, South of the Border, West of the Sun, Japanese author Haruki Murakami explores these lands, both through individual characters and in his main character, Hajime.

Hajime is an ordinary man: middle-aged, married, two children, the owner of two successful Tokyo bars. He is not unhappy; he is not lonely: Life is good, and he knows it. Nonetheless, he feels he has sold out, traded the trappings of contentment for his sense of identity. This feeling is embodied in his favorite Ellington song, "Star-Crossed Lovers," which reminds him of his 20s: "I was much younger, much hungrier, much more alone. But I was myself, pared down to the essentials. ... And every time I heard that music, I recalled my eyes then, glaring back at me from a mirror."

Enter Shimamoto, a long-lost friend from Hajime's adolescence who walks into his bar one rainy night. Shimamoto is the first love Hajime can't forget, the girl who understood and enchanted him most. When they were 12, they would listen to records together, two only children in a village of two- and three-child families. Their favorite song was Nat King Cole's "South of the Border": Not knowing the song was about Mexico, they'd imagined South of the Border as an ideal, beautiful land. When Shimamoto begins stopping by the bar occasionally to talk, Hajime falls in love, seeing in Shimamoto a chance to realize the ideal life he once thought existed in that magical land from a song.

Shimamoto is elusive and almost ghostly. She refuses to discuss her personal life, and when Hajime looks in her eyes, he sees nothing but stillness and his own reflection. She comes to his bar intermittently and only on rainy nights, and when she leaves he must check her lipstick-stained cigarette butts to be sure she was ever there at all. But Hajime is as obsessed by her mystique as by the years they've lost together, and is anxious to reclaim them no matter what the cost.

In most tales of star-crossed lovers, external forces keep the protagonists apart: think Romeo and Juliet, Catherine and Heathcliff, Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale. But in Murakami's novels, obstacles are largely generated from within. The forces of memory, desire, and self-renewal drive his characters, and the interplay of these forces is crucial in determining their fates. Hajime and Shimamoto cannot ignore their lost years together, for time has shaped those very forces which define who they are. In the end, they do find the lands South of the Border and West of the Sun, and the landscapes they discover are wholly of their own making. -- Jessica Berthold

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