The Last Picture Show

I knew nothing about this story going in.  I thought it was going to be some sober, artsy-fartsy thing.  It’s actually filled with sex, much of it surprisingly explicit and even erotic.  The sex is painted real, meaning it’s only occasionally a joyful thing and more often: sad, boring, painful, calculating, stolen, paid for, animalistic (and actual animals are used), exploitative, lonely or just plain nonexistent.  But it’s always intense for the reader, in classic McMurtry fashion.  The story is threaded on a series of sexual encounters so vivid that reading the novel was not unlike my experience reading the later McMurtry novel, “Dead Man’s Walk,” a western that is threaded on a series of searing encounters with violence and death.

Sex is actually compared at one point to a foot-race (Coach / Ruth Popper), and at another point likened to billiards (Jacy / Abilene). These are scenes to get the blood going, but the majority of the book goes to telling sadder truths about the sex, and the picture hits the mark:

In Thalia sex was just not talked about. Even Genevieve would go to considerable lengths to keep from calling a spade a spade. Everything acknowledged the existence of sex: babies were born now and then, and things to prevent them were sold at the drugstores and one or two of the filling stations. The men told dirty jokes and talked all the time about how they wished they had more pussy, but it didn’t really seem to bother many of them so long as the football team was doing well.  The kids were told as little about sex as possible and spent most of their time trying to find out more.  The boys speculated a lot among themselves and got the nature of the basic act straight when they were fairly young, but some of the girls were still in the dark about it when they graduated from high school.  Many girls simply refused to believe that the things boys peed out of could have any part in the creation of babies. They knew good and well that God wouldn’t have wanted any arrangement of His to be that nasty.

The only thing everyone agreed on was that the act itself could only be earthly bliss.  Once the obstacle of virginity was done away with, mutual ecstasy would be the invariable result.  One or two of the bolder girls knew differently, but they didn’t want to be thought freaks so they kept quiet about their difficulties.

The wisest characters, best able to read and understand people, are Sam the Lion and Lois Farrow, and to some extent Genevieve Morgan.

I did not guess that Lois was Sam’s old flame.  I just wondered briefly if it was Ruth, then realized it wasn’t her and kept reading.

Ruth at the end can’t get words out of her that she feels Sonny needs and could use for the rest of his life, much like Call unable to get out what he wants to say to Newt (and what Newt wants to hear).

What does “Honey, never you mind” mean?  Is she turning him away?  The fact that she puts his hand on the table raises that possibility; but she continues playing with his fingers, and I don’t think she’s turning him away.  Moments before, she had become ready to take him back.  So is she saying that he shouldn’t worry about her and that they’re okay now, and let’s proceed?  I don’t think so; I don’t think she’s there yet.  But she could be saying, “never mind what I was going to say.”  We just don’t have any clue from Sonny to guide us, no indication, for example, that he was struggling to understand what Ruth was going through while she was trying to speak. 

Does Woodrow Call’s stunted conversation with his son in “Lonesome Dove” provide any clue here as to what Ruth is thinking and what she will do?  Call, unable to speak to Newt the words struggling to get out, goes away.  But Call has no choice about leaving; and he expects to be back.  Not a good parallel, for this question.

Newt is Lonesome Dove’s Sonny, but Newt’s story is set against a larger backdrop, in which everything is interesting.  In Thalia, little is interesting except the sex, which is fine if that’s true for the characters, but it shouldn’t be true for the reader, and at times the sex episodes do threaten to overshadow the rest.

The non-sex matter in the book is not mere filler, though.  There’s not a wide range of experience in it (the canvas is not epic or even broad), but it’s not mere waiting time between hot scenes, either.  You do get a story in the end.  The entire Sonny/Ruth affair is told in it.  Sonny and Duane both do some growing up, so there’s character arc, particularly for Ruth, although her arc disappointingly begins to look like a boomerang’s, at the end.

I like how McMurtry leaves Ruth, because of Sonny’s silence, having to decide for herself at the end what she will do.

As many reviewers have commented, the death of Billy not necessary. You could see it coming chapters away, and it added nothing.

C.L. Sonnichsen wrote in the El Paso Herald Post of Oct. 29, 1966:

[McMurtry] needs to learn, however, that a writer does not have to shock his reader on every page to get his attention, particularly if the writer has something to say.” 

McMurtry learned that lesson well in “Lonesome Dove”, in which he takes his time.  But he lays the shock on even in late books like “Dead Man’s Walk,” and a little bit even in “Streets of Laredo”.  And the shock rarely wears off, because McMurtry keeps things varied and interesting; you keep turning the pages, but always with full intensity, and sometimes you need a break.

Changes in the “Last Picture Show” movie, which was co-scripted by McMurtry:

  • The name of the fictional town of “Thalia” is changed to “Anarene”, which according to Wiki is a “ghost town in Archer County, Texas.” Presumably it’s very close to Archer City, the town that served as the basis for the story and McMurtry’s hometown.
  • The movie streamlines the story, makes it less intense, easier to endure (no heifer scene; no hyper-intense orgasms), slower-paced and maybe more reflective, though without the laugh-out-loud humor in some of McMurtry’s writing;
  • Lois does not sleep with Sonny (a good choice by the filmmakers);
  • I’m glad they didn’t make Ruth overly attractive, as Hollywood tends to do whenever it casts a characters originally described in a book as not attractive; these people thus feel real; they shouldn’t look like movie stars;
  • The final “never you mind” seems to mean “never you mind what I’m saying.”  It means that she’s turning her attention to him.  It’s just a moment; she is not signaling either that he should go or that he can come back.

I haven’t read the 1987 sequel, “Texasville”, or its 1990 movie.  It’s intriguing that the movie brings back almost all of the actors of the 1971 original (they’ve aged 19 years, compared to the 30 years that separate the two books).  But I’m disappointed that the main characters seem to be Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd, who by then had become the biggest stars in the cast.  For me, Ruth was the best thing about the “Last Picture Show” novel, and Cloris Leachman the best thing about the movie.

Interesting that Randy Quaid and Cybill Shepherd made their debuts in that movie.  I’ve seen a lot of Cybill in movies and TV, but relatively little of Randy.  For me he will always be John Wesley Hardin in “Streets of Laredo”.  I also must have seen him in “Independence Day,” “Get On the Bus” (small uncredited role), and “Brokeback Mountain,” but I haven’t seen any of his other work.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s