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A “tint of indefinable substance” – Rhino Ranch, by Larry McMurtry

Rhino Ranch, by Larry McMurtry (the fourth and final part of the Duane Moore series, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2009)

Larry McMurtry knows how to write, that’s for sure. His writing style is perfectly suited to the settings of many of his novels, which is Texas: strong, no-nonsense and to the point. And like the state, by reputation, and the cowboys and oilmen about whom he writes, it is dry and a bit caustic.

His sentences are short, succinct, spare, perfectly expressed. His paragraphs are short but pivotal, always moving the story along. The characters’ words are few and their thoughts are brief – because of how they are but also because this is a feature of McMurtry’s writing. He writes like one would think real people speak – abbreviated, choppy, interspersed with asides and the occasional swearword. Sometimes a chapter is only half a page. Yet, each short chapter is meaningful and able to stand alone as a perfect little scene – with a beginning, middle and end.

They start with an action statement – so-and-so does, thinks or says X, and ends with a short declamatory type of sentence – “I hope you understand that.”; “Finally he went so sleep – and, when morning came, woke up.”; “By God, you’re right, Bobby said.”; “Hondo then hung up.” Got the idea?

McMurtry is good at writing set pieces, and so he should be, since he has written more than thirty screenplays, and he is very good at writing conversations that smack of being very close to the bone. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Lonesome Dove, but it was his co-authorship (with Diana Ossana) of the screenplay for Annie Proulx’s novel Brokeback Mountain that won him public acclaim and the 78th Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2006.

Comparing Larry McMurtry with Annie Proulx


Cowboys, farmers, labourers  ranching, and rural towns

One cannot, therefore, help drawing comparisons with his writing and that of Annie Proulx, whose short story he adapted so well. There are obvious similarities – both McMurtry and Proulx frequently write about cowboys, farmers, labourers  ranching, and rural towns that are threatened by industrialization. Comparing these two authors highlights McMurtry’s writing style, character development and choice of settings.

American Midwest and Southwest

They both set their novels in specific regions, or historical periods in those regions, the American Midwest in Proulx’s case, and the American Southwest in McMurtry’s. Of Proulx’s eight novels, three (Close Range, Bad Dirt and Just the Way It Is) are set in Wyoming, and one ( That Old Ace in the Hole) partly in Texas. The other four start off in Vermont and then the characters travel all over the country, including Wyoming and Minnesota, (Heart Songs, Postcards, Accordion Crimes, Close Range), and another is set in Canadian Newfoundland (The Shipping News). In McMurtry’s case he has a clear preference for Texas, Mexico and Montana in the Southwest: his famous Lonesome Dove (or Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call) series is set in Texas, Montana, and Mexico.

Writing in series

Both authors’ genres include writing in series. McMurtry has produced five series of novels, Harmony and Pepper, Duane Moore, Houston, Lonesome Dove, and the Berrybender Narratives. By the time I got around to reading McMurtry’s final book in the Duane Moore series, the characters and settings had become comfortingly familiar to me. Proulx, though far less prolific, has produced eight compilations of short stories of which the three set in Wyoming have a very similar tone and subject matter and seem to be continuations of each other, also becoming recognizable to the reader.

Filmed books

Lastly, both authors have had their books filmed. Proulx, famously for The Shipping News, and of course Brokeback Mountain, one of the short stories in Close Range – Wyoming Stories. Many of McMurtry’s books have been filmed, some, I’d bet you knew the film but did not know he had written the book on which it was based: The Last Picture Show, Texasville, Terms of Endearment, and Lonesome Dove. Thinking about it, it is amazing that McMurtry and Ossana could spin a screenplay for a 134-minute-movie out of a short story, though it is quite long in format and dense with atmosphere and meaning – and like McMurtry’s writing – scenic in style.


Comical vs. dark

There are also differences between McMurtry and Proulx: – McMurtry’s characters are sometimes comical, sometimes endearing, or unintentionally heroic. Duane Moore, the main character in Rhino Ranch, is that kind – he used to be depressed (in the darkly humorous Duane’s Depressed) and took to walking, but now he is old but still rich and kind of charming. The secondary characters are sometimes merely sketched out – they are like a support cast, providing context and background, they often have rather obvious character flaws and are often killed off – or removed from the narrative – without fuss.

The 30s generation

Reading this, and considering the comparisons with Proulx, the only other writer whom I have read whose novels have similar features to the works of these two, is Cormac McCarthy, though in his instance, his writing style is completely different, often featuring long and complex metaphors and imagery – and his characters are much darker and more violent than those of either these two authors.

However, they are of the same generation and perhaps that is a clue to their approach to “the work of writing”: – Proulx was born 1935, McMurtry 1936 and McCarthy 1933. (Also interesting that both McMurtry and Proulx are published by Simon and Schuster, New York. One should never underestimate the influence of a good editor on a writer).

On the other hand, I would not call Proulx’s characters humorous at all. There is usually not an ensemble involved, but one person or a core group of one or two, usually poor, desperate, disturbed, longing or lost. Accordion Crimes, in particular, my favourite novel of Proulx’s to this day, is very dark and disturbing, with a menacing undertone. In McMurtry’s Rhino Ranch, Duane’s general easy-going though somewhat puzzled manner is balanced out by his relationship with Dal, a Cambodian woman who works for his oil company. The conversations between Dal, a Cambodian refugee from the Khmer Rouge, and Duane, are delicate and balanced, never descending into sentiment or drama. In one of the most moving moments, Dal explains that she was imprisoned in Tuol Sleng, a Cambodian security prison of the Khmer Rouge regime, now a genocide museum.

“’But I am not normal, Duane,” she said. ‘No one who went through Tuol Sleng is normal – though some pretend to be,’ she said. ‘It is not my family I need to be closer to,’ she said, ‘I need to be close to my ghosts. Mr. Moore, I hope you understand that.’” (p. 235)

Main themes

This highlights a recurring theme in the book: people’s search for meaning in their lives, for connections that last, as they grow older. Some find it in marriage, others in philanthropy, others in drugs, and some, failing to find meaning, take their own lives. While the book is called Rhino Ranch  – an idea I thought interesting when I read the blurb – it is much less about rhinos, ranching and conservation than about prejudice and how lonely and isolated a narrow point of view can make a person or a whole town.  The incidents with the rhinos, that act rhino-ly and graze, roll over a car and flip a horse, are mirrors used by McMurtry to reflect the weaknesses and stupidity of people. Except for one rhino, called Double Aught, who uncharacteristically tags along with Duane and assumes the nature of a ghostly companion in his loneliness (it might’ve been in his head all along), the rhinos are not the main theme of the novel.

What makes it beautiful

As with other authors who have mastered the fine art of honing their sentences down to precisely how and what they want to express, McMurtry’s novels read easily, gracefully, elegantly. The words slip though your mind like raindrops off a window, and yet you can hold on to the feeling they convey, and the ideas reverberate with you long after you have put the book down.

Explanation of writing style

Proulx describes exactly what it takes to write so masterfully in an interview in The Paris Review (Annie Proulx, The Art of Fiction, Issue No. 199). Some composers refer to a drawn-out but elegant phrase, optimizing the essence of an instrument, as “a ‘singing’ line”. Reading McMurtry’s and Proulx’s writing is very much like hearing a beautiful “singing line” – and creating this consistently takes enormous skill. Her words should be the guide for every aspiring author:

A lot of the work I do is taking the bare sentence that says what you sort of want to say—which is where a lot of writers stop—and making it into an arching kind of thing that has both strength and beauty. And that is where the sweat comes in. That can take a long time and many revisions. A single sentence, particularly a long, involved one, can carry a story forward. I put a lot of time into them. Carefully constructed sentences cast a tint of indefinable substance over a story.

The hard works pays off.

There is difficulty involved in going from the basic sentence that’s headed in the right direction to making a fine sentence. But it’s a joyous task. It’s hard, but it’s joyous. Being raised rural, I think work is its own satisfaction. It’s not seen as onerous, or a dreadful fate. It’s like building a mill or a bridge or sewing a fine garment or chopping wood—there’s a pleasure in constructing something that really works.

About Larry McMurtry

Larry McMurtry (Credit: Diana Ossana/Simon &Schuster published in New York Times 06/28/95)

Larry Jeff McMurtry is an award-winning American novelist, essayist, bookseller and screenwriter. Check his Wikipedia entry for a list of his works. He used to own some book stores in his home town, but in early 2012 the majority of his inventory was sold off. In 2011, McMurtry published the third part of his memoirs, Hollywood – A Third Memoir: “One thing I’ve always liked about Hollywood is its zip, or speed. The whole industry depends to some extent on talent spotting. The hundreds of agents, studio executives, and producers who roam the streets of the city of Los Angeles let very little in the way of talent slip by.”

After Rhino Ranch in 2009, McMurtry wrote Hollywood: A Third Memoir, then Custer (non-fiction) in 2012, and in 2014, a standalone novel, The Last Kind Word Saloon.

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