Larry McMurtry wrote his first novel, Horseman, Pass By, in 1958, when he was just out of college, and he published it in 1961. His second, Leaving Cheyenne, came out in 1963. He published his third, The Last Picture Show, in 1966, when he was thirty. In the small Ohio town where I grew up, my friends and I started reading his books in the late 1960s—half a century ago. Now these three early novels have been reissued as a single-volume trilogy, Thalia, which is the name of the fictional small town in Texas that figures importantly in all of them.
I’m impressed, first, by how consequential the Thalia novels turned out to be. From a personal standpoint, although they are essentially sad and describe a way of life that was ending, for my friends and me they had no deterrent effect at all. We couldn’t wait to go out into McMurtry’s America, and when we were old enough most of us let Ohio’s well-known centrifugal effect fling us West. We did not take his books’ dark message to equal despair or misery. Books you read when you’re that age can have an everlasting effect on you.
And from the point of view of McMurtry’s own life and career, a lot happened to him because of Horseman, Pass By. Another Ohioan, Paul Newman, bought the film rights for it soon after its publication. That lucky or unlucky break drew McMurtry into the movie world, led to his becoming the writer of or contributor to some seventy screenplays, and gave him material for novels that he would write later. Newman had entered that period in his career when he starred as the title character in movies beginning (or almost beginning) with an “H”: Hombre, The Hustler, Harper, and Cool Hand Luke. The antihero of Horseman, Pass By is called Hud, and that became the title of the movie. Newman played Hud in his best drawling faux-western style—another hit in his series of “H” roles. Thus on a single capital letter may a writer’s future hinge.
The other novels in the Thalia trilogy also became movies. Leaving Cheyenne became Lovin’ Molly, starring Anthony Perkins, Beau Bridges, and Blythe Danner. The Last Picture Show, made into a movie of the same name, starred Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, and Cybill Shepherd. It won Best Supporting Actor and Actress Oscars for Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman, and is often included in lists of the best American movies of all time. The movies made of the novels inevitably color any rereading of them; you can’t help but hear the dialogue in the actors’ voices. The books are much rawer than the movies, though, as well as scarier, sometimes uglier, and more powerful. They touch on…
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