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 deeper and darker American themes.
Of Horseman, Pass By, I remembered only the plot (an old rancher is forced to shoot his entire herd when it becomes infected with hoof-and-mouth disease) and a single image. That was of a cowboy after hours at a rodeo lying passed-out in the back seat of his car with his legs sticking out of the open back door. Later I observed that very sight myself at rodeos during a youthful stint (partly McMurtry-inspired) of working on a ranch in Wyoming. I had recalled less vividly that the novel is a nightmare story about race. The first sentence of the first chapter introduces Halmea, the young black woman cook at the ranch. A few paragraphs later, after the family has finished supper in the evening, the old rancher suggests that some dishes be taken in to Halmea so she can wash them. Hud, the rancher’s thirty-five-year-old stepson, replies, “Then let the nigger bitch gather ’em up herself.”
That’s the first line Hud speaks in the book. He is a horrible person but we come to understand that the rancher has not been very nice to him. Lonnie, Hud’s seventeen-year-old stepnephew, narrates the story. He likes Halmea and lusts after her. She tolerates him, jokes with him, brings him iced lemonade when he is hurt, and keeps him at arm’s length, good-naturedly. Her accent does not resemble that of the white characters, who all speak unaccentedly. Halmea’s speech seems to have been modeled on Jim’s, from Huckleberry Finn. Both pronounce “the door” as “de do’.”
Halmea is resilient and remains good in the face of evil. After Hud rapes her, in a violent scene described with frightening clarity, her first reaction when he leaves is to take care of the hapless ranch hand who had been trying to defend her and whom Hud had knocked unconscious. She does not call the police, telling Lonnie, “No law gonna hear about dis, you see dey don’t. Tell de law, dey have it my fault befo’ you turn aroun’. I seen dat kinda law befo’.” She quits the next morning and Lonnie gives her a ride into Thalia. Though he looks for her later at her aunt’s house, she has gone to Detroit. He never sees her again.
In Hud, the movie, Patricia Neal plays Halmea. She has all the same qualities that distinguish Halmea in the book, except for blackness. The performance won her an Oscar for Best Actress. In the movie, Hud fails in the rape attempt because Lonnie fights him and stops him—something Lonnie does not do in the book. No black character of any real importance appears in any subsequent McMurtry book (or movie) until Lonesome Dove, more than two decades later. Rereading Horseman, Pass By, I wondered if McMurtry’s writing might have taken a different course had Paul Newman not come along, and had Halmea not been whitened for the movie.
Leaving Cheyenne, the second part of the trilogy, is about two men in love with the same woman. Each of the principals tells about a different stage of the ménage. Gid, the rancher, describes its beginning, back in the 1910s, when all three were young. Molly, the love interest, then tells of the middle phase, when she confuses matters by marrying Eddie, a no-’count man whom she is attracted to. Johnny, the cowboy, takes the story to the end, by which time both he and Gid have had a son with Molly, and both sons have died in World War II. Gid, Johnny, and Molly remain closest friends throughout. Johnny and Gid don’t like Eddie, the husband, but he falls off an oil derrick and dies rather early on.
I was crazy about this book when I was eighteen. Of the three, it holds up worst. The rambunctiousness of the voices that charmed me then sound now like a hokey combination of 1960s sexual openness with dialogue tropes from the past—a sort of Tom and Huck Try to Get Laid. Molly, a 1960s-style independent woman and free spirit, now seems only intermittently real. In the book, she is constantly grinning. Every emotion seems to reveal itself in a grin of one kind or another: “‘Guess what?’ she said, grinning and looking happy”; “She looked at me, half-grinning and half-serious”; “She thought a minute, and grinned, but a sad grin”; “There were dark circles under her eyes, but she had just the trace of a grin on her face.”
In the introduction to Thalia, McMurtry says that he originally wrote the final novel in the trilogy, The Last Picture Show, in the first person, like the other two, and then “painstakingly translated it into the third person.” The effort succeeded completely. As I reread it I noted how many lines in it I knew by heart, mostly from seeing the movie many times. McMurtry cowrote the screenplay, and the movie closely follows the book. Plain speaking and mordant humor lift the dialogue throughout. When Sonny, the high school senior who is having an affair with Ruth Popper, his football coach’s wife, asks her why she married the coach, she says, “Because my mother didn’t like him, I guess.”
When Jacy Farrow, the flirtatious love of Sonny’s best friend, Duane, drops Duane and starts to go with Sonny, the two boys get into an argument that revolves around the relative prestige of the positions each played on the football team. Sonny says, “I was in the fuckin’ line. That’s the only reason Jacy went with you as long as she did, because you was in the backfield.” The fight escalates to blows, and Duane hits Sonny with a bottle that blinds him in one eye. Now Sonny cannot join the army, as both boys had expected to. When Duane gets on the bus on his way to his deployment to Korea, he tells Sonny, “See you in a year or two, if I don’t get shot.”
The books in this trilogy are like songs for acoustic guitar, with maybe some chase-scene banjo thrown in. By contrast, the three novels McMurtry wrote after these are the literary equivalent of Bob Dylan going electric. Moving On, the novel that followed The Last Picture Show, came out in 1970 and is 794 pages long. Its range of characters includes professors, graduate students in English, a screenwriter, a rodeo star, other rodeo contestants and performers, San Francisco hippies, little kids, and a rich woman who is in a fancy New York hotel one day and in Hollywood the next. All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers, the book after that, is the story of a young writer who receives $36,000 for the movie rights to his novel about Texas and who goes on a picaresque journey full of wild comic adventures, mostly in California. Terms of Endearment, the 410-page novel that followed, continues the saga of some of the characters from Moving On.
McMurtry came from an oral culture. He grew up in a house with almost no books, where the family sat outside in the evenings and told stories. His writing possesses the enormous, omnivorous energy that’s released when an oral tradition makes the leap into written words. By the time he wrote Moving On he had discovered the joy of translating the world into prose on a page, and it’s as if he can’t stop describing stuff. Every detail is closely observed and alive. The novels in Thalia are the beginning of that acceleration. They have the halting, stutter-step quality of a big process starting up.
McMurtry has said that he writes ten pages a day, seven days a week, including holidays. Along with his many screenplays, he has produced a couple dozen novels. Why, out of all his books, did he pick these three to republish as a trilogy? The reason probably has to do with their being the products of his youth, the closest to his experience of growing up on a ranch in a part of Texas where his father’s family “produced nine cattlemen,” as he says in the introduction. And perhaps he wants to celebrate the idea of the small town itself and hold that idea in memory, maybe even help make it stronger. When the novels in Thalia originally came out the American small town seemed to be in decline. How drastic the decline was and is becomes clear to anyone who drives two-lane roads in the Midwest or Great Plains—or almost any rural part of America—today.
A small town can be a kind of utopia. There was a plan, of Jeffersonian derivation. You would have so many farms or ranches of so many acres, and every so many miles there would be an intersection, and after so many intersections you’d come to a town. And in every county, among the smaller towns you’d have a more substantial town, and that would be the county seat—a town like Thalia—with a courthouse, and a jail, and a town square, and a bus or railroad stop, and at least one café, and stores, and a movie theater. And the people in the town would only rarely have occasion to meet anybody they didn’t already know.
Early in Horseman, Pass By, Lonnie goes into Thalia:
[It] was a still, quiet place at night. I drove slowly through the one long main street, now and then hearing a snatch of fiddle music out some open window. Some of the folks were out watering their lawns or visiting with the neighbors. In the summertime, in that country, evening is the peaceful time of day.
I parked on the square and got out. In front of me, under the big courthouse mulberry trees, a few old men were sitting on the wooden benches, talking and whittling and spitting as the night came down.
In Leaving Cheyenne (a book that, confusingly, has little or nothing to do with Cheyenne), Thalia is where Molly and the three rivals for her affection meet up at a dancehall Christmas party. Everybody in town is there, with horses and buggies hitched outside, and “even quite a few automobiles.” Inside the people are dancing and drinking eggnog, and little kids are running around and screaming. Soon Johnny and Eddie, two of the rivals, are slugging each other in the parking lot; Johnny calls Eddie “a damn oil-field hound-running coward.” Johnny’s nose is bleeding. He slams Eddie against a car, throws him on the ground. Men are standing around and watching and commenting. The sheriff appears and asks, “These boys ain’t hurting one another, are they?” and one of the onlookers replies, “Naw, they’re just fighting, Gus.”
The Last Picture Show is dedicated to the author’s hometown. Biographical data inform us that the model for Thalia is Archer City, the county seat of Archer County, which is northwest of Dallas–Fort Worth. The Last Picture Show paints Thalia’s portrait in full. The cold northers blow through town, “singing in off the plains, swirling long ribbons of dust down Main street,” in a human setting that’s emotionally chilly enough already. Sonny’s father has been destroyed by the death of Sonny’s mother in a car crash, and can’t take care of his son. Sam the Lion, who owns the town’s pool hall, café, and picture show, lost his sons to violent deaths and his wife to insanity. Charlene, Sonny’s sour girlfriend, informs him when they are breaking up that she didn’t let him go any farther because he “ain’t good lookin’ enough.” Nailing the coffin, she adds, “You ain’t even got a ducktail.”
Yet the town remains vital despite the bleakness, meanness, and wind. Someplace is always open in Thalia, at any hour. The café never closes, not even on Christmas. Sonny can always stop by in the middle of the night and tell his troubles to Genevieve, the wise and motherly and fantasy-inducing waitress. Sam the Lion sometimes opens the pool hall at 6:30 in the morning. He fills in as a father figure for Sonny, who stops in for a breakfast bag of Cheese Crisps. By the town square there’s a night watchman sleeping in his idling car somehow without asphyxiating himself who can be awakened at any hour of night and asked the latest news. Kids on dates can find out if it’s time for them to go home by driving past the jewelry store on Main Street and looking at the clock in the window.
And if it all gets too much and you need some space, you can drive to the Y, a fork in the road about five miles outside of town. Sonny and Duane go there one evening:
The fork was on top of a hill, and when they got there they sat and looked across the flat at the cluster of lights that was Thalia. In the deep spring darkness the lights shone very clear. The windows of the pickup were down and they could smell the fresh smell of the pastures.
What’s hard about small towns is that, if you grow up in one, you have to leave when the growing-up is through. You will never know another place as well, just the way you’ll never get another language fixed as intricately in your heart. But for some reason you feel invisible if you keep on living in the town, as Sonny discovers at the end of the book. McMurtry shows the sadness and the allure of this contradiction better than anybody: “all my friends are going to be strangers” was both a promise and a lament. Sometimes I take out my Rand McNally Road Atlas and look at small towns in one midwestern and western state after the next. I think of all the millions of kids who left those towns, and of the kids who decided to stay—a perfectly reasonable option, after all. Now those who left are probably blue, and those who stayed are probably red, and not much of anything about America today feels like being home.