Post Road Magazine #10

Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show
Steve Yarbrough

Larry McMurtry has supposedly expressed the opinion that the film made from his early novel The Last Picture Show is a lot better than the book, and many people seem to agree. The last time I looked, the novel was ranked thirty-fourth among McMurtry titles on, below such forgettable efforts as Somebody’s Darling, Moving On, Boone’s Lick, and Cadillac Jack. It could not be found at my favorite local book store, though the clerk there offered to order a copy if I really wanted it. At the same time, the film was readily available on tape and DVD at the video store I frequent. These poll results, I’ll admit, are unscientific, yet I think they are probably an accurate representation of the film’s reputation versus that of the novel. If so, it’s a pity, because while the film is undeniably a classic and director Peter Bogdanovich’s control of tone may exceed that of the young McMurtry, the book is, in its own way, every bit as powerful as the movie and a good bit funnier.

The novel’s opening line—“Sometimes Sonny felt like he was the only human creature in the town”—nicely sets the stage for the story that follows. Sonny Crawford and Duane Moore, two high school seniors, each with only one living parent, are rooming together in a boarding house in a small town northwest of Fort Worth. Duane supports himself as a “rough- neck,” working in the oil fields, while Sonny drives a truck for Fartley Butane. It’s the early 1950s, the war in Korea is in progress, and the town of Thalia lives for two things: football and sex. The problem is that the football team can’t win a game, and sex—for anything other than the purpose of procreation—is widely frowned upon.

The wind blows a lot in this novel. The streets are often empty, except for an occasional ragweed skittering across them, and the landscape is bleak, barren. The houses and shops, for the most part, are small and rundown. The center of town is the pool hall, and a reader is left with the feeling that men and boys come there to escape from churches, wives, and girlfriends.

The minor characters in the novel are vivid and memorable. Sam the Lion, an old man with a wild white mane who owns the pool hall, the movie theater, and the town’s only real restaurant, gives the book its moral center. The great secret love of Sam’s life is Lois Farrow, the rich, bored wife of an oilman and the mother of Jacy, Duane’s girlfriend, whom every boy in town—and at least a few men, such as a rapacious driller and gambler named Abilene—wants to sleep with. There’s Billy, a mentally impaired adolescent whose only real pleasure in life is to sweep out the pool hall and the theater and, when no one is paying attention to him, the streets themselves; Ruth Popper, the wife of the football coach, a closeted gay who sends her to the doctor with Sonny, leading to an affair between the two of them; and the minister’s son Joe Bob Blanton, who avoids having to deliver a sermon at a revival by abducting a three-year-old girl and then letting himself be caught.

Thalia, Texas, is a rough place, and some rough stuff occurs there, most of it involving sex. Many of the boys, for example, work their lust off by desperately copulating with heifers. Coach Popper secretly has his eye on the quarterback, Bobby Logan, and becomes enraged when Bobby starts spending too much time in the company of a male teacher. The coach spreads a rumor that the teacher is gay, and the school board immediately fires him. Numerous fist fights over girls and women take place, and when Sonny dares to court Jacy after Duane has left town, Duane finds out, comes home, and smashes a beer bottle into his friend’s eye. McMurtry’s feat—and it’s no small one—is to make us live inside the skin of these characters. We come to feel, as they do, that the only real release is to do something crazy, or escape into a celluloid fantasy.

Bogdanovich’s film, bleak as it is (and it was filmed in black and white, to accentuate its bleakness), nevertheless serves up a somewhat sanitized vision of the characters and their situations. For instance, the director has said that he cast Jeff Bridges in the role of Duane because Duane is not very likable, whereas Bridges has a good-natured air that softens the character. Sam the Lion, described in the book as an old man who wears houseshoes to work because his feet swell in cold weather, also suffers coughing fits so severe they make him lose his balance, yet Sam is played in the movie by Ben Johnson, a more youthful, vigorous, and robust individual who is apt to cause less consternation when the viewer realizes that a few years earlier he was in bed with Lois Farrow. No heifers are mounted in the movie, and the lone reference to bestiality comes off as a joke. The scene in which Sam reveals to Sonny his love for the younger woman originally revolved around a pissing contest, which Bogdanovich made McMurtry remove from the script because audiences might not find it “attractive.” Indeed, it isn’t, but it’s the kind of thing young men will do in a silly effort to prove their prowess, and the novel’s juxtaposition of the stupid with the sublime adds another element to a dramatic revelation.

Many critics believe that William Faulkner, in writing his preface to the Modern Library edition of Sanctuary, did that magnificent book great harm by labeling it a gangster novel. I don’t know whether Larry McMurtry has harmed the reputation of his own novel or not, but I do know that The Last Picture Show merits reading—and not just watching.

Steve Yarbrough is the author of six books, including the novels The Oxygen Man, Visible Spirits, and Prisoners of War. He divides his time between Fresno and Krakow.

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