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 …
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Was It Archer City? October 22, 1987