An uplifting walk on the grim side


"Duane's Depressed," by Larry McMurtry. Simon & Schuster. 432 pages. $26.

Suppose you've never read a word by Larry McMurtry. Not even "Lonesome Dove." Nothing against the popular author. You just haven't.

So now you're handed this strangely named book -- "Duane's Depressed" -- and are told that it represents the final chapter of McMurtry's trilogy about a desolate Texas oil patch called Thalia, where a man named Duane Moore has impulsively decided to stop driving his pickup truck and walk.

And just that quickly, from the very first paragraph, your ignorance in all things McMurtry matters not a whit. You are instantly pardoned for skipping "The Last Picture Show" and "Texasville," this book's precedessors. You are hooked, and wonderfully rewarded.

In a small town, you see, a 62-year-old man with a successful oil business doesn't just get out of his truck and start walking. As Duane himself realized, "there were fewer committed pedestrians in the county than there were followers of Islam."

But Duane has a problem. He's depressed. He doesn't think he is, but "being in the cab of a pickup suddenly made him wonder what had happened to his life." By societal standards, he was successful -- married to the same woman for 40 years, four children and nine grandchildren, school board president, town leader -- but he also was quietly desperate. He wanted to visit Egypt. He wanted to try woodworking. He wanted to live.

Duane walks to his cabin outside of town, and likes it so much he decides to move in. This naturally causes his dysfunctional family to fret. His wife assumes he wants a divorce. Why else would a man walk when he could drive?

The more Duane walks, the deeper he plunges into mental illness, but McMurtry populates Thalia with enough eccentrics to provide comic relief and keep the novel from veering toward melancholy. Half the town appears addicted to the Weather Channel. Everyone's a little crazy, McMurtry seems to be saying, it's just that in a small town it's so much harder to hide.

Then, too, it's not like Duane has jumped off the high board. McMurtry, who has battled depression himself, skillfully and gently shows us how gradual yet progressive mental illness is. This is a book psychiatrists could prescribe to the families of patients -- see, they could say, this is what it's like.

Duane himself eventually finds a psychiatrist, Honor Carmichael, who prescribes a different book for him, Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past." He struggles with it, but follows doctor's orders, chiefly because he's falling in love with her. She understands; transference is a job occupation. She also understands his real problem:

"No one wants to think it's all just been futile striving."

"Duane's Depressed" is not unflawed. The Moore family get-togethers are too much like a Fox TV sitcom. The grandchildren sound like little adults. Some of the characters, like a man obsessed with his surgically removed testicle, are more annoying than eccentric. And McMurtry appears determined to flout conventional literary wisdom by showing that you can indeed solve a plot problem by having a character run over by a truck.

For all of that, this is ultimately a deeply moving account of a character who has endured everything from the pain of ill-fated teen-age love to the regret of old age and the death of old friends. Whatever Larry McMurtry is striving for, the result here is uplifting, not depressing, and certainly far from futile.

Ken Fuson, a staff writer for The Sun, has been a reporter for more than 20 years. Much of that time he worked at the Des Moines Register.

Pub Date: 01/17/99

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