The Last Duane Show

I was in a state of panic and Duane Moore rescued me.

I get that way — nervous, itchy — when I don’t have a book going. I look over my shelves but nothing speaks to me. 

And I had just been on a run of great books and had a series of wonderful reading experiences.

I also have this quirk. If I read a book by an author and really enjoy it, I won’t allow myself to read another book by the same writer until I’ve put five or six books in between them. This helps me avoid burnout.

Even if it’s someone whose books are like drugs to me — Michael Connelly, Anne Tyler, Carl Hiaasen, etc. — I still follow that no back-to-back rule.

So I was stuck. None of the books were speaking to me.

Then I went to the second-hand bookstore at that temple of wonderfulness, the public library.

Browsing the shelves, eavesdropping on the cashier and another customer, I found it. Duane’s Depressed.

It’s the middle book in Larry McMurtry’s series featuring Duane Moore, and the only one in that series that I had not read and did not own. The title was a little off-putting. Who wants to read about someone else’s depression?

McMurtry, who died in 2021, left us a tremendous amount of work and he had published books in several series, taking place across three centuries.

He’s most known for Lonesome Dove (1985), the Pulitzer Prize winning epic about two aged Texas Rangers,  Woodrow Call and Gus McCrae, in the waning days of the West. //// Spoiler alert: Gus dies in that book. //// The characters were so beloved — by readers as well as McMurtry — that he spun off a couple of prequels featuring the cast of Lonesome Dove: Comanche Moon (1997) and Dead Man’s Walk, (1995) as well as a sequel, Streets of Laredo (1993), which concerns Call’s adventures alone, post-Gus, tracking a sadistic killer.

McMurtry also wrote a series of books set in the 20th Century, featuring a screenwriter named Danny Deck. He was the star of All My Friends are Going to be Strangers (1972) and Some Can Whistle (1989) and appeared in several other novels in what McMurtry called his Houston series. Terms of Endearment (1975) was part of this series, and Danny Deck made a cameo, as he did in Moving On (1970), a huge, brawling, deeply wonderful novel about rodeo folk. (By the way, Some Can Whistle was one of the most moving books I’ve ever read. It gripped my heart and brought me to tears. Read it and you will understand.)

There’s a series of four novels known as the Berrybender Narratives, published in the first decade of this century, about a pioneer family. Good stuff.

All of this brings me to Duane Moore.

Duane first appeared as part of the cast of horny teenagers in The Last Picture Show (1966). He was a football player and then a roughneck, and he was apparently headed toward the ol’ life of quiet desperation.

But … surprise. When Duane and the other denizens of Thalia, Texas, returned two decades later, our boy had become a successful oil man. Texasville (1987) brought the horny teenagers up to middle age. The earlier book focused on a large cast. There was Sonny Crawford, the simple, quiet kid who carried on an affair with the much-older Ruth Popper, wife of his football coach. We had Jacy Farrow, the prettiest girl in town, who liked to flirt with anything in a cowboy hat and tight blue jeans. The moral center of the cast, the one who served as the town conscience and mentor to Sonny and Duane, was Sam the Lion. And there were so many more rich characters.

Texasville moved Duane Moore to the center of the narrative and he starred again in Duane’s Depressed (1999), When the Light Goes (2007) and, finally Rhino Ranch (2009).

As I say, I skipped Duane’s Depressed but reviewed When the Light Goes on its publication, and was shocked at how much I’d missed Duane.

He was a widower in When the Light Goes, which served as an advertisement for elderly eroticism. The characters were what we would call “mature,” but they still fucked like rabbits. Truly a wonderful (and inspiring) book.

I came across the last Duane book, Rhino Ranch, a few years back, enjoyed it immensely but panicked as I neared the conclusion, realizing this was the end of the series..

So when I picked up Duane’s Depressed at the bookstore, it was like walking into the middle of a film. I know what’s going to happen in the 20 years after the events in the book, but that didn’t lessen my enjoyment.

Here’s the outline of the story: Duane is a prosperous oil man and his kids are lazy and worthless. They leave the rearing of their children to the housekeeper and to their parents, Duane and Karla. Their grown daughters go off and party in Dallas and leave their kids in front of the television, with Grandma.

So Duane comes home one day, parks his pickup and starts walking. There’s a small cabin on his property, about six miles away from his house, and he finds himself hoofing it there. He’s done with pickup-truck culture and decides he will henceforth walk everywhere.

Naturally, no one can understand his behavior. Duane, you got a perfectly good pickup. What’s wrawng with you, Son? Karla is threatened by Duane’s walking, thinking his walking away is the first step toward divorce. His two daughters think he’s gone crazy. His coked-up son thinks dad’s going through menopause. 

All of these lay people think Duane is depressed. He doesn’t think so. He thinks he’s a pilgrim, trying to find a path through this ridiculous catastrophe of life. The cowboy culture mocks Duane for the walking. He upsets his friends by openly seeing a therapist, of all things. The therapist is in Wichita Falls, so Duane gets a bicycle. He also discovers the depths in his soul, thanks to Dr. Honor Carmichael. Nothing sexual happens between them because Duane is faithfully married and devoted to Karla. But Honor and Duane acknowledge their deep attraction. (They eventually fuck like monkeys in When the Light Goes.)

McMurtry’s storytelling is, as usual, masterful. I haven’t liked every book he’s written — the motherfucker published 47 books! — but I’ve loved most of them and have actually reread some of them. 

One of my primary reasons for loving Larry McMurtry: It was 1986. I was living alone, recently separated, in a minimalist apartment. I had a mattress on the floor, a lawn chair and a recently acquired copy of Lonesome Dove. The book was my only entertainment. I’d read, then fall asleep and dream I was with Woodrow and Gus. It was sometimes hard to remember what was dream and what was McMurtry’s narrative. Reading that epic novel leads my list of Top Ten Glorious Reading Experiences. (Along with Fanny by Erica Jong, The Nuclear Age by Tim O’Brien, In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason and The World According to Garp by John Irving.)

I was already a fan of McMurtry. A decade before my Lonesome Dove experience, I was working for a magazine and sent him a note, asking if he had a short story we could publish. He replied promptly: “I can’t write short fiction. I just can’t.”

Thank God he wrote such powerful and absorbing novels. He created so many worlds, spanning the 19th through 21st centuries. To me, Duane Moore has been one of his richest characters and a companion for so much of my life. 

Books can do that — give us glimpses into other worlds and other lives. I’m lucky to graze McMurtry’s bibliography and find such astonishing people and stories.

Sweet Mysteries of Life

My father died when I was young, and there are a few million things I wish I could talk about with him. He was 53 and I was 20. I’ve significantly outlived him.

I inherited most of his books — and it’s daunting. He had everything. Go into my living room, where I keep this prized library, and you’ll find an impressive collection  of world literature. Run your fingers over the spines: Thuycides, Plato, Aristotle, through all of Jane Austen and Henry James, and that fun couple, Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne

This photograph of Raymond Chandler kind of looks like my father.

I have a beautiful edition of Leaves of Grass, printed (appropriately) with a grass leaf cover. I have his copy of The Bible as Living Literature

He loved Vladimir Nabokov, and could recite parts of Finnegans Wake from memory. He was a huge fan of James Joyce and so the portrait of Joyce next to the living-room bookshelves — which I purchased from a Dublin street artist — is there in tribute to him. I’ve appreciated Joyce’s short stories but never made it through Ulysses or Finnegans Wake.

I have such strong memories of my father performing passages basso profundo.

But his tastes were so catholic. Note lower case. 

My father was one of those guys with a book in every room — living room, family room, bedroom, bathroom. Different books for different moods.

I share one of his addictions, though mine did not appear until many years after his death. We both love(d) detective fiction.

I remember when we were stationed in England in the 1950s. Dad had a lot of paperback mysteries strewn around the house. My brother got custody of those books when Dad died, so I’ve been playing catch-up.

Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason

The recent HBO series devoted to the Perry Mason origin story got me reading the Erle Stanley Gardner omnibus my son Jack bought for me last year at a garage sale. Mom and Dad used to devour those books.

I bought a few Raymond Chandler collections from eBay. Dad, in particular, loved Chandler.

And there was a less-well-known writer, named John Dickson Carr. I remember so clearly my father reading his book, The Problem of the Wire Cage. I await the arrival of a battered 60-year-old paperback from eBay.

I wish I could talk over these books with my Dad. I was so unformed when he died. In the last year of his life, he bought me two books that meant so much to me — The Boys on the Bus by Timothy Crouse and In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. I was the only member of the family who showed no interest in following him into a medical career, so he wanted to support me in the work I chose.

Carl Hiaasen

Somewhere along the way, I became a fan of mystery novels. Maybe it started with Carl Hiaasen’s books, back in the 1980s. I’m not sure those are traditional mysteries — they’re more like farces with undertones of ecological skullduggery.

His latest book, Squeeze Me, spoofs the crimes against humanity at the Palm Beach White House, where the president is known only by his secret service code name: Mastodon.

Hiassen’s novels have only a couple of continuing characters. Alternating novels feature Skink, the renegade former governor of Florida. War hero and patriot Clinton Tyree returned from Vietnam filled with idealism and entered public life. He was elected governor, but then became frustrated by the rampant corruption in the state, and so disappeared.

But he didn’t exactly disappear. Tyree went underground as an eco-terrorist, subsisting on roadkill.

Thankfully, Skink appears in Squeeze Me. (He has also appeared in one of Hiaasen’s entries in his best-selling series of young-adult novels. Hoot is the best-known of his YA books.)

Squeeze Me got me laughing during this pandemic, and I wrote about that book a few posts back. Find it here.

Michael Connelly

But my old man would have really loved books by two writers whose work is like crack to me: Michael Connelly and Tom Corcoran.

Both are known for their long-running series of novels with continuing protagonists. Connelly and Corcoran are so expert at their craft that it does not matter in what order you read the books. You can read the latest Connelly novel about Harry Bosch and not feel left out.

Bosch is the character to whom Connelly most often returns. He was introduced 30 years ago as a Vietnam veteran, born to a prostitute and a (then) unknown father. His mother is murdered, Bosch grows up in foster homes, serves as a tunnel rat in Vietnam before becoming a cop. With each case, he avenges his mother’s murder. “Everybody counts or nobody counts.”

Along the way, Connelly has introduced other continuing characters, including FBI profilers Rachel Walling and Terry McCaleb. He had to kill off McCaleb several years back, because Clint Eastwood bought the rights to a novel featuring McCaleb. The character was around 40, but when he was played by the Great Squinter in Blood Work, Connelly realized he had to dispose of his creation. In a meta moment, Connelly addressed the issue of Eastwood’s major plot twist that perverted the relationships in the Blood Work novel. This showed in conversation, when McCaleb notes — not long before his demise — how it sucked to be played by a geezer in the movies.

Along the way, Connelly created another character. Since he showed a great affinity with police stories, he decided to master the courtroom thriller. Thus was Mickey Haller born. Turns out he’s the half brother of Harry Bosch — we finally find out the identity of the father — and works out of the backseat of his car. Connelly inaugurated a series of Lincoln Lawyer novels, then two years ago, introduced a young detective who lives in a lean-to on the beach, Renee Ballard. 

Another continuing character, Jack McEvoy, harkens from Connelly’s days as a newspaper reporter. He appeared in The Poet, The Scarecrow (one of Connelly’s very best) and Fair Warning. Once a mad-dog journalist, these days Jack works for a non-profit reporting collective. Connelly keeps up with the times. His characters often show up in each other’s novels. Bosch might appear in a McEvoy book and Bosch makes frequent walk-ons in the Mickey Haller stories.

(FYI, Bosch is the excellent Prime Video series starring the perfectly cast Titus Welliver as the detective. If you have not seen it, six seasons await your binge. The seventh season is in production.)

A few years back, the jacket of a Tom Corcoran novel bore a quote from Connelly that said Corcoran’s book Air Dance Iguana was “the reading highlight of the year.” 

That is high praise. 

Tom Corcoran

Corcoran’s protagonist isn’t a police detective. Alex Rutledge is a Key West photographer well connected to cops and reporters and gets roped into solving mysteries in America’s southernmost city. 

Corcoran’s books have the added attraction of their setting. He gives us the underbelly of Key West, not just the tourist version. His books are fecund with sights, sounds and tastes of Key West. 

As an even further added attraction: the setting, the heat, the lack of clothing, the island breezes . . . they all combine to make these Corcoran books sexier than your average detective novel.

I’ve read all of his books and his new one, The Cayo Hueso Maze, is his best. Again, you can start with this Alex Rutledge novel, then read the rest of them — and trust me, you’ll want to — in any order.

Corcoran was an Ohio boy, but was assigned to Key West in 1968, and he’s spent most of the last 50-plus years in the islands, and he knows the town’s deep history, having palled with Tennessee Williams, Thomas McGuane and Jim Harrison. He wrote a couple of songs with new-kid-in-town Jimmy Buffett (whom he also housed when Buffett lacked a place of his own) and co-authored two unproduced screenplays with Hunter S. Thompson.

(Of course, if you’re interested in Corcoran’s life, you can always read my swell book, Mile Marker Zero.)

We are in the middle of a global pandemic, so reading a Tom Corcoran book might be the only way to take a trip to the island.

Click on these links to buy the two latest books — Connelly’s The Law of Innocence and Corcoran’s The Cayo Hueso Maze

Michael Connelly’s website: www.michaelconnelly.com
Tom Corcoran’s website: www.tomcorcoran.net