Saturday, August 20, 2011

"The Last Picture Show"

Sometimes Sonny felt like he was the only human creature in the town. It was a bad feeling, and it usually came on him in the mornings early, when the streets were completely empty, the way they were one Saturday morning in late November. The night before Sonny had played his last game of football for Thalia High School, but it wasn’t that that made him feel so strange and alone. It was just the look of the town.

Thalia is a town in the northernmost part of Texas, one of those small towns where everyone knows everyone else and there are few secrets. It is that period of time between World War II and the Korean War, and there is a clear pecking order when it comes to the social strata. For someone getting ready to graduate from high school, there isn’t much to do in Thalia except hang out at the pool hall, the diner, or the picture show. Thalia is the setting of “The Last Picture Show,” by Larry McMurtry.

In Thalia we meet the novel’s main characters – Sonny Crawford, Duane Jackson, and Jacy Farrow, all of whom are on the cusp of graduating from high school. Sonny and Duane are best friends, and in addition to being co-captains of the football team, share a love (though “lust” may be the more appropriate word) for Jacy, the only one among the three of them who appears to have an easy road out of the town (she is planning to go to college) and into the “real world.”

“Is growin' up always miserable?” Sonny asked. “Nobody seems to enjoy it much.”

“Oh, it ain't necessarily miserable,” Sam replied. “About eighty percent of the time, I guess.”

The tone is melancholy throughout – even when Sonny and Duane are out “having fun,” the escapades have a desperate feel to them, such as the time when, on a whim, they decide to explore the pleasures that Mexico has to offer. The adults, as evidenced by Sam the Lion (who owns the town’s pool hall, diner, and picture show), don’t give the kids much to look forward to. Though some, particularly Sam, are drawn as sympathetic, they are all flawed (some deeply so), not particularly happy, and all somewhat trapped by the parameters of their own individual circumstances – whether it be an unhappy marriage, a dead-end job, or simply not being understood for what they are.

McMurtry doesn’t paint a sentimental or nostalgic picture, but that is what gives the novel its power. And just like he did in “Lonesome Dove,” he demonstrates a knack for creating female characters who are just as strong as their male counterparts. In this regard, I’m thinking less of Jacy (who is probably the least sympathetic character in the entire book) than Ruth Popper, trapped in a loveless marriage, Genvieve, trapped in a low-end job, and even Jacy’s mother Lois, trapped in a life – as comfortable as it is – that seems far removed from the dreams she once had.

This one sat on my shelves for years, but I’m glad I finally got around to reading it.

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