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Duane is old.
We know this, many of us, from the first page of Larry McMurtry's new novel "Rhino Ranch," because we have grown old with him.
We remember when Duane was young, young like us, when we met in "The Last Picture Show," McMurtry's 1966 coming-of-age novel set in the sleepy, don't-blink Texas town of Thalia, where Duane Moore was a supporting character to best-friend Sonny and the rich and beautiful and so self-absorbed Jacy.
They were young and appealing, bored and curious and obsessed with sex, tough and spirited yet achingly vulnerable. Of course we identified with them.
"Texasville" (1987) continued the alternately hilarious, wistful and sad story of life in and around and despite Thalia as Duane and his friends muddled through middle age. Having made and lost a lot of money in the oil business, Duane is a study in human frailty as he struggles with guilt, regret and disappointment over faded love, doubtful choices and withered aspirations.
When it came out in 1999, "Duane's Depressed" often was cited as the final installment of "the Thalia trilogy," funny and sad again, full of wit and whimsy and melancholy as Duane and friends entered or approached their 60s.
But it wasn't the end. In 2007, Duane returned in "When the Light Goes." And still it wasn't the end. He had to grow older still and ... well, it can't come as a spoiling surprise to anyone who cares: Duane had to grow old and die.
Early in "Rhino Ranch," McMurtry has Duane talking with Dr. Honor Carmichael, the psychoanalyst he first saw in "Duane's Depressed," to work through the mess of his life. He tells her he feels "marginal." She suggests another word: old.
"Many aging people feel marginal, to some degree," she says. "For decades they're at the center of things, and then one day they're not. They slip over to the sidelines. They become marginal, and next thing you know they're old."
The conversation ended there, McMurtry tells us. "As usual, though, Honor Carmichael had told him something that felt true."
Later, when Duane tells friend Bobby Lee that a young woman he's seeing wants him to get a vasectomy, Bobby warns, "If you do it you'll never be the same."
"But I'll never be the same, anyway," Duane responds. "Old people get less and less the same, all the time."
Thalia remains the same in many ways, dull and listless, insular and frequently mean, but people are gone -- Jacy and Sonny, of course, and Duane's wife, Karla (killed in a car accident). Several more die in the course of the story, and Duane attends many funerals, each a reminder of his own approaching mortality.
McMurtry gives us a parade of new characters who show how much Thalia has changed since the 1950s, when the movie theater showed its last picture show and closed: meth heads, Satanists selling T-shirts on a country road, a refugee from the killing fields of Cambodia and a "billionairess" who tries to save the endangered black rhino by bringing dozens of them from Africa to a sprawling ranch outside Thalia. At the Asia Wonder Deli, two fellows from Sri Lanka make curries for the curious and daring among Thalia's cowboys and oilfield roughnecks.
"Rhino Ranch" is funny. It's sad. It's as poignant as a teddy bear found at a crash site.
Chuck Haga, a former writer for the Star Tribune, now lives and writes in Grand Forks, N.D.