The Last Picture Show
Wichita Falls lies in north central Texas, with the Oklahoma line just a few miles to the north and the Texas Panhandle sticking up just a few more miles to the west. It is not now and never was one of the scenic beauty spots of North America. Under the heading of “What To See,” the AAA Tour Book lists nothing whatever. More sedate books of reference speak unenthusiastically of Wichita Falls as the center of an agricultural district, the home of Sheppard Air Force Base, and as surrounded by oil and gas fields. Set in a vast expanse of level plateau country, Wichita Falls lies on the Wichita River, indeed, but the “Falls” are hypothetical. Something must have been there when the town was named and a set of artificial falls are being built now—but for most of the town’s history, there weren’t any that you could notice.
Heading west from Wichita Falls on Route 287, one reaches after some sixty miles Vernon; and then, cutting a little southwest, another twenty miles brings one to the hamlet of Thalia. There one is in the heart of Larry McMurtry country. Larry McMurtry is the author of twelve novels, published over the last twenty years, two of which have been made into successful movies (The Last Picture Show and Terms of Endearment), and another of which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. McMurtry was born and to some extent bred in Wichita Falls. As a “serious” novelist he hasn’t received much consideration, probably because his western settings have led eastern critics to confuse him with writers of cowboy melodramas. He can do cowboy melodrama, and do it very well, but even as he does it, there are overtones and nuances of feeling that transcend the formulas. Comparison with classic American writers is probably premature (if one ventured on such comparisons, they might be with Bret Harte, not Mark Twain; Sherwood Anderson, not William Faulkner; Frank Norris, not Stephen Crane), but it is safe to say that Wichita Falls has produced an artist. An account of one early and two late novels can give some impression of the shape and quality of his career. Though one of these books is panoramic in its scope and historical in period, the other two are firmly set in Thalia, Texas, which is not just a backdrop but a powerful presence.
Whatever it may be in real life, Thalia in McMurtry’s fiction is one of the most dreary, ugly, depressing small towns imaginable. Set in a flat, semi-arid plain, it is swept when the wind blows with storms of gritty sand and thickets of tumbleweed. The town has minimal commercial life, most of it moribund, practically no opportunities for amusement, zero culture. People in Thalia do not read books under any circumstances; the only music they listen to is Willie Nelson; they take no interest in politics above the local level, watch TV torpidly, and drink as much as they can afford to. Conversations when they occur are apt to be blunt, sarcastic, and brief; the prevailing mood of the town is sullen. For brief periods, some Thalians may be very rich and spend their money, out of boredom, on things they don’t really want or need; but there’s really no elite group to show off before. The lively social event is the high school football season; but the activities of the town are largely channeled into fornication. It is continuous, barely concealed, and cuts across all boundaries; it takes place day and night (once notably at the town’s only traffic light where the two main streets cross). In this respect, and this alone, Thalia is a lively town.
The Last Picture Show is an early (1966) novel about Thalia; it introduces us to Duane Moore and Sonny Crawford, two boys in their last year at Thalia High School. Both are curiously detached from their families; they live in a boarding house and support themselves doing a variety of handyman and roughneck jobs. Both are avid in their pursuit of sexual initiation. Jacy Farrow is the sex queen of the high school, and reserved for Duane the football captain; but she is an elusive prey, and though both boys successively attain her—sort of—it can’t be said that either really enjoys her. Nor indeed does she enjoy them, or anybody else; the various grandes affaires end invariably in fiasco or ludicrous comedy. Meanwhile the book’s background is enlivened with many more bizarre couplings. Sonny in particular bounces around like a sexual billiard ball, from dull Charlene to Ruth Popper, wife of the football coach, to Jacy herself to Jacy’s mother—who, having prevented the consummation of his marriage to her daughter, calmly takes the young groom off to spend the wedding night with her.
Around the margins of the Duane and Sonny stories a good deal of yokel sex-play goes on—callow experimentation and barnyard buggery, plus a trip by Duane and Sonny to a Mexican whorehouse. None of these episodes bestows anything in the way of enlightenment or pleasure on the participants; indeed, the book’s happenings, especially when they are deliberately intended, have very few consequences of any sort. On the other hand, when Duane and Sonny (despite their long friendship) get into a barroom scuffle over Jacy, things turn unexpectedly ugly. Though the fight is perfunctory, one of Sonny’s eyes is so badly damaged that he loses the sight of it. An obvious irony is that the girl over whom they are fighting cares for neither of them, and probably at the moment for nobody except herself.
Sonny’s affair with Ruth Popper, who is at least twenty years older, is the most carefully developed and movingly described element of the book.
“I see you feel you’ve missed a chance,” Ruth said, when they were at the door. She looked at him frankly. “You see, I’m very confused, even if I look like I’m not. That’s why you must go. I’ve got on a great many brakes right now—what I was thinking about a while ago is nothing I’ve ever done except with Herman, and for a long time I haven’t even believed a man could want me that way. I don’t know if I believe it now, even though I see you do. But then I think it isn’t really me you want, it’s only that…sex. Not that there’s anything wrong with you wanting that, it’s perfectly natural….” She was talking faster and faster, but suddenly she stopped.
“You must really think I’m crazy,” she said. “I am crazy I guess.”
“Why’s that?” Sonny asked.
“What?” Ruth said, caught by surprise.
“I mean why do you feel crazy? I guess I shouldn’t be askin’.”
“Of course you should,” she said. “I was just surprised you had the nerve. The reason I’m so crazy is because nobody cares anything about me. I don’t guess there’s anybody I care much about, either. It’s my own fault, though—I haven’t had the guts to try and do anything about it….”
She shut the screen door and they stood for a moment looking through the screen at one another.
Ruth, though atrociously misused by her loathsome husband and then almost as cruelly by her callow lover, shows signs of being a survivor; but Sonny has been overwhelmed in his manhood. He will never, it seems, be anything but the whimpering, shamed puppy that he is at the end. Sonny isn’t in any way a sensitive soul crushed under the iron wheels of life; there aren’t more than two sensitive souls in Thalia. It’s the dumb innocence of the young people in their thoughtless cruelty, as in their blind despair, that gives the book its very moving balance. The boys don’t know they’re pathetic, but older people achingly do—Genevieve, night waitress at the local café, and Sam, who runs the pool hall; they realize the only thing to be in Thalia is young and foolish, and they realize the hopeless fragility of that temporary condition. The book touches the throbbing nerve of American loneliness; it is relatively gentle with its people, but hard as nails about their desolate condition.
Lonesome Dove is a bigger and very different novel. It is set sometime in the undefined past, between 1869, when the first cattle drive from Texas to Montana was made, and a decade later, when Custer’s Last Stand (1876) was a much-talked-about event. Once again the balance of the novel is between toughness and tenderness, and once again the central figures are a pair of cooperating and contrasting males. Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call are retired Texas Rangers who run a rather dubious cattle-and-horse ranch, the Hat Creek outfit, at Lonesome Dove, not far from the Rio Grande. The mythology of the Texas Rangers (who from the days of the Republic had been the principal and in many districts the only agents of law in Texas) is extensive and romantic. They are said to have been omnicompetent and invincible, Supermen before their time. Tales are told of a single Ranger being dispatched to capture a raiding party of two hundred Mexican soldiers, and of similar heroic deeds involving desperadoes, Comanche war parties, and assorted hard cases of the ragtag frontier.
McCrae and Call have given up “rangering,” as they call it, and now are business partners, breaking and making the law as they see fit along a frontier where there is properly no law at all. Sometimes they raid Mexican ranches across the border, sometimes they are raided. As the novel opens, the business run by these two soldiers of fortune does not seem much better than hit-or-miss. They have very few hands, most of their stock is running loose on the open range, and since it is very poor range, the commercial side of their enterprise hardly seems likely to prosper. As for Lonesome Dove itself, it seems to be little more than a saloon/whorehouse surrounded by a few houses and perhaps a general store: not being described, they have to be imagined. But the grubbiness of the hot, sandy, savage environment is thoroughly rendered. The sandy land is crawling with red-legged centipedes, a couple of bites from which can lead to an amputation; food consists mainly of beans laced with chopped rattlesnake and goat fried in a substance like tar; and when someone has a chunk bitten out of him by a vicious horse, the treatment is axle grease and turpentine.
McMurtry clearly relishes these details. In the opening scene Augustus McCrae is sitting on his porch, sipping whiskey from a jug, and watching with mild interest as two blue pigs try to devour a single rattlesnake, starting from opposite ends. There are other scenes to turn the stomach, and a steady undercurrent of macho (or is it sadistic?) violence that sometimes seems excessive. For example, when Woodrow Call finds one of his men being assaulted in Ogallala, Nebraska, by a nasty, domineering soldier, it is natural for him to come to the rescue, natural for him to knock down the aggressor, even to kick out a handful of his teeth; but when he drags the prostrate victim to a nearby blacksmith shop and beats his head against the anvil till he has to be dragged away by a horse and lariat, a reader may feel it’s been a bit much. Again, on a visit to Fort Worth, Augustus McCrae is offended by an uppity young barkeeper; so he smashes the man’s face on the bar, breaking his nose, and then puts an end to the contretemps by knocking him cold with the butt of his revolver. They are tough hombres, these Texas Rangers, but not invariably sympathique.