Monday, August 1, 2011

From the Bookshelf: The Last Picture Show, by Larry McMurtry

This is the book cover from my second copy.
One of my favorite books is Horseman, Pass By by Larry McMurtry. The book was later adapted into a film that is nothing like the book - Hud.

The Last Picture Show, which my class and I discussed last week, was also adapted into a film -- an Oscar winning film of the same name, by Peter Bogdanovich. This is one of the few instances in which the film and the book are both extraordinary; and it's one of the few instances in which the plot and characters of the film cling closely to the novel. The film, of course, must move more briskly, but I'm blown away by the film every time I watch it.

And I'm crazy about the book, which I just subjected my class to reading; I think they had mixed reactions. Why read a book about such a desolate place? Why read a book in which there is such sadness and misery? Why read a book about a dying place?

This books was written in the 60's. But there is something prophetic about it. There is a deep, profound commentary here about the changing America of the times, and the changing America to come. The loneliness, the sadness, and the pall of death that hangs over the dead town of Thalia is starting to spread from the abandoned oil towns in the middle of Texas to the rest of America. There is certainly that feeling.

I think the book belongs in the same category as Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg Ohio, a collection of shorts about a symbolic/mythical American town full of perversion, religious confusion, moral contradictions, and loneliness. Both books believe there is something alienating about the American experience, and in turn, the human experience. There's a whole subgenre here that is worth exploring.

Last Picture Show is replete with sex. The young harlot Jacy Farrow -- daughter of the town harlot before her Lois Farrow -- sleeps with no less than five men. She uses sex in a futile attempt to get...what...we're not sure, and she isn't either. A reputation? A new place in society? The thrill? To break the monotony of the dead world that is Thalia? To woe a man into marriage? She's lost, and the men pursuing her are lost, too. And every sexual encounter ends badly. She never feels fulfilled.

This is a still the film with Sonny and Ruth.
Most of the sex, in fact, ends badly, even the novel's big love affair. At the heart of the book is what we'd now impolitely call a "fuck buddy" relationship between Sonny, a young high school graduate, and Ruth, the bored and lonely housewife of the high school football coach, who's vaguely portrayed as a closet homosexual (a fascinating layer to the novel -- one among many layers). Ruth and Sonny meet regularly in Ruth's house, while Coach is at school, and they carry on a blissful series of romps for months on end. She's twice his age, but he doesn't mind. He doesn't admit to loving her, and she never admits to loving him, but that is the nature of love, as McMurtry sees it. When the affair ends because Duane falls for a ruse by Jacy, Ruth spirals into depression, and Sonny feigns indifference. In a line that breaks my hear, Ruth declares, "I'm around the bend now. It's over." As the novel ends, Sonny attempts to make a painful reconnection with her; but everything is lost. The town movie hall is closing, the town pool hall is deserted, and Sonny's best friend, a daft young boy named Billy who loved Thalia will all his heart, has been killed. This is a book about how difficult it is to cope with a wide range of loss. Once it's gone, it's gone.

Every word, every sentence, every paragraph of this novel is covered in Texas dust, and the language itself -- spare and wispy - feels as abandoned and dead as the town and people it describes. The town was once prosperous, an oil boom town. But now it's dead. There's only one pleasurable thing to do in Thalia: play football. The whole town knows what's going on in the local game, and they all offer advice to Sonny and his buddy Duane on how to play. But when you're done with high school, you're done, and Thalia is your grave.

The novel suggests that we have but one glorious time in our lives -- the high school years -- when love is new and hope is strong -- and then it fades, and then it's gone, but still somehow you've got to find a way to live on. (John Mellencamp?) Sonny seems to cling to whatever shred of pleasure in life he can, and his clings to it in Ruth. But in the end, it slips out of his hand, and he's left cowering in Ruth's kitchen under the crushing weight of some immense and almost unbearable truths about American life. It's a feeling not unlike the one Ruth expresses when her crude, conflicted, and massive husband inflicts on her as he crushes her in an act of loveless lovemaking.

This notion of modern American life is haunting.

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