By Bill Kohlhaase
Even fictional men get old. But do they learn anything? We first met Duane Moore over 40 years ago in The Last Picture Show, the landmark novel of small-town decay by the prolific Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove, Terms Of Endearment and the screenplay of Annie Proulx’s short story Brokeback Mountain). Duane was a sexually frustrated high school senior who lived on his own in the local hotel and worked nights as an oil roughneck (the 1971 movie adaptation featured Jeff Bridges as Duane and Cybill Shepherd in her first film as the object of Duane’s frustration). In McMurtry’s latest book, When The Light Goes, Duane is a 64-year-old eccentric who owns a small oil company and travels rural Texas by bicycle. The sexual frustration remains.
Repressed sex was first among many themes in The Last Picture Show. Its characters included the macho football coach with closeted homosexual desires, his frustrated wife who awkwardly seduces Duane’s best friend Sonny, curious high school girls and their desperately horny male classmates (who can forget the great scene in which a pack of boys head out to the ranch to gang rape a blind heifer?). In When the Light Goes, most everyone’s over their ignorance, if not their frustration. Duane still suffers it, as does his son Bobbie Lee, who has only one ball.
The Last Picture Show turned a flashlight on the hidden shadows of desire. When The Light Goes hits it with a flood lamp and sends up flares. The words “stiffening nipples” peeks from the book’s first sentence and becomes a reoccurring motif. If you think sex—let alone wet dreams—are over by 60, this book will be a revelation. What can we say but “Ewwwwww!”
Duane has just returned from Egypt and isn’t at all anxious to plunge into his former life. In the series’ previous book, Duane’s Depressed, our hero has taken to living in a cabin after the death of his wife in an auto accident. He ditches his truck to walk and bicycle, even to the neighboring city. On his return from Egypt, a sense of duty obliges him to stop in the oil company office where he spots those stiffening nipples. The story proceeds from there.
The people who worry about Duane’s mental state are as weird and troubled as he is, though nonchalant about it all, their lives a playground of wide, comic swings. His daughter Julie, after confessing to her father that she’s slept with a “zillion” men, admits her husband Goober is gay and that she’s committed to becoming a nun. Son Bobby doesn’t want to shoot the parolee his wife has taken up with because he’s such a bad shot. Bobby once tried to kill a bug with a pistol and instead blew off his little toe. Duane has a crush on his analyst (shades of Tony Soprano!), a lesbian who quits her practice to deal raunchily with Duane’s hang-ups and her own grief. His 90-year-old employee Ruth Popper—once the frustrated coach’s wife who seduced Duane’s buddy Sonny—likes to brag about her sexual escapades with the Methodist minister. “There’s nothing like screwing a preacher,” she asserts. If you think life in sleepy little towns is predictably boring, this book might change your mind.
The suffocation of small towns was the other prominent theme of The Last Picture Show. Thalia, the Texas town in question, has been on the croak for four books and is now off life support and barely breathing. The only encouraging sign comes from the crossroads convenience store recently purchased by two Sri Lankan brothers who do away with microwave burritos and instead serve fresh shrimp dumplings and spring rolls to the oilboys.
Thalia’s ongoing death is only the backdrop here. The book’s preoccupation is sex and how it serves as a key to Duane’s mental health. It’s decided that Duane, despite lovers, a 40-year marriage and two daughters, is weak with women. Enter those stiff nipples, as sported by geological analyst Anne Cameron, who’s been hired to bring new life to Moore’s drilling business (we’re not sure McMurtry meant the pun). Anne is younger than Duane’s daughters and her nipples become an obsession.
While Anne talks a good game, she’s not much of a player. The story evolves as Duane and his paramour develop a physical relationship in spite of heart disease and a repulsion to tongue kissing. When the Light Goes is full of laughs and unruly characters. But it’s one-dimensional entertainment compared to the multi-dimensional The Last Picture Show. Maybe McMurtry just can’t get it up like he used to. Still, there’s no doubt what’s on his mind.
When the Light Goes by Larry McMurtry; Simon & Schuster, hardback, 195 pages, $24.