Proust in Texas
When I go out of the house for a walk, uncertain as yet whither I will bend my steps and submit myself to my instinct to decide for me, I find, strange and whimsical as it may seem, that I finally and inevitably settle somewhat southwest, toward some particular wood or meadow or deserted pasture or hill in that direction.
–Henry David Thoreau, “Walking”
Larry McMurtry’s new novel about an old character, Duane Moore of The Last Picture Show and Texasville, is his best in some time. The premise of Duane’s Depressed caused me to think about a quite different writer, Katherine Anne Porter, and what she said about her brother at the end of his life: “Poor man, he was swamped and deluged and God knows I think, almost literally smothered to death in family….” Duane manages to elude such a fate by setting out, at the beginning of the novel, on a Thoreauvian quest to reinvent his life. He parks his pickup truck and takes up walking. He has spent a lifetime driving, tending to his oil business and carrying out the daily duties of husband, father, and grandfather – but no más. He walks everywhere, a sight so strange in that county that everybody thinks he has lost his mind. In a short time he moves into a small cabin out in the country. Later he takes to riding a bicycle for the longer trips to more worldly places, like Wichita Falls. At one point he imagines visiting, by bike, one of his sons who lives in Montana. Duane’s rebellion against the tyranny of “pickup culture” is complete and uncompromising.
What Duane seeks, he doesn’t quite understand, but peace is a big part of it: the simple quiet of being away from his large, noisy, disorderly, and fractious family – wife, sons, daughters, grandchildren. Those scenes at his sprawling, multi-garaged home, built during the heady days of the oil boom, are boringly reminiscent of all of the farcical family turmoil that made Texasville seem at times so tedious. Texasville’s tedium arose in part from its over-the-top comedy and from the sheer junkiness of the culture inscribed upon the brain pans of its mostly brain-dead denizens. In that novel Duane seemed dazed; in this one he wakes up. In that one he couldn’t remember what the last picture show was – The Kid from Texas, “a movie Duane had never heard of.”
Traces of Texasville’s dullness recur in Duane’s Depressed. Bobby Lee, an eccentric redneck, is a one-joke character, and the joke this time out is that he has lost a testicle due to cancer. It’s all he thinks about, and all everybody else in the town thinks about when he’s around, but it’s never funny. Few of the other familiar characters are interesting. Ruth Popper at ninety is still as opinionated as ever, but she isn’t funny either. Lester Marlow is still doing his Randy Quaid impersonation, and Sonny Crawford, well, Sonny is still forlorn and still immobilized in his fixation over Jacy. Jacy is a little bit more interesting than the others because when the novel opens she’s dead, having perished five years before on Alaska’s North Slope, her body unclaimed but her loss betokened by a small cosmetics bag found in the cockpit of a downed plane.
Two other points should be mentioned before turning to what is genuinely interesting about the novel. There’s a short chapter about a postal employee on the verge of going “postal” that should have been cut entirely. And finally one word about grammar: isn’t it about time that Simon & Schuster hires a copy editor who understands the conjugation of lie and lay? Exhibits: “Shorty [Duane’s dog] would usually be laying just outside Gay-lee’s door when Duane arrived” and “Laying on a couch in a room with an attractive woman wasn’t much like keeping a call girl.”
The real interest of the novel is Duane himself. In Duane’s Depressed, McMurtry grants Duane a mind, something too little seen in Texas fiction. Duane reads Proust, sort of, and he reads enough of Thoreau to see the parallels with his own life. He understands the meaning of “quiet desperation,” and knows what it feels like to go through life “pushing a barn ahead of him.” Like Thoreau, he doesn’t want to “become a slave to his machine.” His favorite sentence in Walden is the one that goes to the heart of the matter: “I went into the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Duane’s great fear is simply this: to discover too late that he has not lived. He begins to acquire an authentic existence only after he ceases to be with his family. At sixty-two he sets out on a journey of self-knowledge. Walking back and forth to his pastoral cabin, he begins to notice nature, birds, plants, small animals. Everything that is not human is a comfort to him. He finds himself angry at the careless trashiness of his neighbors, people who discard their junk in creek beds and along the back roads of the county. Duane sets it as his task to clean up the pastures and roadways, reminiscent of Joseph Jones’s stewardship of Austin’s Waller Creek, recorded in his book Life on Waller Creek.
Duane’s intuitive move towards nature, self-reflection, and solitude is the first step towards growth. As he turns inward, he also turns outward, towards the larger world beyond the boundaries of Archer County. Ill-educated, but blessed with a good intellect, Duane discovers that he has never done anything to train his mind, to stretch it beyond its parochial limits. The new novel’s Duane goes far beyond the Duane of Texasville, who “was well aware that his ignorance of the world, and his unwillingness to go and see much of it, were shortcomings….” The new Duane comes to a very Jamesian assessment of his condition:
What had happened to his life? Why, in sixty-two years, had he made so little of it? He was not educated, he had not traveled, he knew nothing of the great cities of the world, he could speak no language except a crude English; he had never visited a great museum, or seen a great picture, or heard a great symphony orchestra, or read a great book. He was ignorant, except at the most general level, of the works of great men and women who had made something in their time as living beings.
Henry James’s famous list of the “absent things in American life” is exactly what Duane is feeling. So said James in his biography of Hawthorne, in an inventory of what America did not possess: “…no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages, nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities nor public schools – no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures….” Duane’s life has been lived almost entirely in a village, and the limitations of the village were never more evident than in the fictional portraits of village life in America: Spoon River Anthology, Winesburg, Ohio, The Last Picture Show. Duane’s psychiatrist, who has traveled to ancient places and seen cultures with more “grace” than is to be found in Thalia, comments in a Jamesian manner late in the novel, “This place is all present – it’s barely a hundred years old.”
Duane’s education includes reading parts of Walden and, upon his psychiatrist’s recommendation, three volumes of Proust. Before Proust, Duane had never read a long book except for one. In a jokey postmodern moment, McMurtry has Duane imagining his dead wife Karla saying to him: “The only long book you ever read was Lonesome Dove, and if the miniseries had been on first you wouldn’t have read that one, either.” It takes him a year, averaging about ten pages a day, to read the French memorialist of memory. Reading Proust becomes a habit, part of his daily ritual. Much of it he can’t comprehend, but certain truths come through: “It was soon obvious that social life in Paris was a thousand times more complicated than social life in Thalia….” Late in the novel, Duane, in therapy, gives way to a tidal wave of weeping. His shrink, a good-looking lesbian named Honor Carmichael, with whom he has fallen in love, compares his flood of emotion with that brought on by the madeleine in Proust, the eating of the cookie soaked in tea that returns Proust’s young man to his childhood. Although Duane can’t recall the madeleine episode, he has had a Proustian experience, and it proves quite cathartic.
The most moving results of Duane’s journey occur after the death of his spirited wife, Karla, in a car crash. Duane pursues a two-track method of coping with his grief and continuing his self-education. He reads Proust and he plants a huge garden, stocked with all manner of exotic vegetables never before seen in that region. He calls it the Karla Laverne Moore Memorial Garden and donates the produce to the poor. Later, after he realizes that his love for his psychologist is his version of a common mistake – misreading her professional sympathy as something more – he decides to extend his quest for knowledge to a place he has begun to dream of visiting: the Pyramids. And so he writes a letter to Karla, placing it in one of the wooden boxes that he has begun crafting – another healing hobby that helps free him from the old anxieties of the oil business and family responsibilities. The letter contains a remarkable self-reflexive echo of a document that McMurtry included in his great essay of some thirty years ago, “Take My Saddle from the Wall: A Valediction.” In that piece he included a letter written by an uncle whose wife had been killed recently in a car wreck. The uncle wrote: “Yes it was an awful tragidy to have Mint crushed in the smashup, my car was a total loss too.” Of that sentence, McMurtry remarked: “I doubt that Seneca himself could have balanced the car and the wife that simply….” Duane’s version reads thus: “Well, Karla, it was a tragedy for me that you smashed into the milk truck – the BMW was a total loss too.”
Although publicity materials announce that Duane’s Depressed is the final volume of the Thalia saga, that statement might be premature, considering McMurtry’s productivity. In fact, Duane proves so interesting in this novel that it’s possible to imagine another one. It took Updike, after all, four novels to wrap up Rabbit.
Don Graham’s Giant Country: Essays on Texas recently won a Violet Crown Award. A novel, French Resistance, co-authored with his wife Betsy Berry, will be published by Boaz in Fall 1999. This article is partially funded through a grant from the Austin Writers’ League in cooperation with the Texas Commission on the Arts.