Larry McMurtry’s Names

I spent a couple of commutes highlighting the names of all the characters in The Last Picture Show.  I’ve gotten used to reading on the Kindle app for my phone, and this is one of the advantages.  It’s a slightly dubious advantage of city life that my commute is too short to get down to serious reading.  I think I’ve mentioned McMurtry in passing as not serious enough for me to blog about, but maybe I’m just embarrassed by titles like Lonesome DoveThe Last Picture Show and Terms of Endearment.

The Last Picture Show is my favorite.  It’s hard to summarize.  There are two young men, just out of high school in a small Texas town in the early fifties.  There’s a girlfriend who’s out of their league, and an ailing father figure who runs the pool hall.  It’s a whole catalogue of perversity and violence, from nude swimming to bestiality and from fisticuffs to broken bottles and maimings, along with an appalling amount of drunk driving.  According to Wikipedia, the raunchy high school/college sex comedy genre begins with Animal House in 1978, but this is obviously wrong.  In 1971, The Last Picture Show won two Oscars and a bunch of nominations.  Porky’s and American Pie are sad shadows of McMurtry’s apotheosized potboiler.

In a recent issue of the New York Review, there’s a brief appreciation by Ian Frazier of McMurtry and The Last Picture Show.  I learned that three of McMurtry’s novels have been released as Thalia: A Texas Trilogy.  Surprisingly to me, the other two are the also-filmed Horseman, Pass By and Leaving Cheyenne.  I hadn’t realized that there were more Thalia books beside the sequels to Picture Show, at least one of which I had read and found wanting.  Frazier remarks on the pleasure of reading these novels, despite their basic sadness.  He’s right that the sadness is partly a result of the fate of small town America, though I would maybe stop short of tying a novel like this to a political point.  He’s also right that the pleasure comes from the perfect dialogue.

I think I would be extending Frazier’s point (and not simply ripping it off, but I don’t have the magazine in front of me to make sure) in remarking that there is a kind of perfect super dialogue as well with which McMurtry effortlessly recounts the town’s minor scandals and introduces his huge cast.  Why do I conflate dialogue with narration?  I wonder if I’m just being sloppy, but it seems to me that in this super dialogue, he inhabits the voices of his characters to achieve superb ironic effect.  This accounts for the great pleasure I took in simply gathering the names of the characters: Sonny, Billy, Sam the Lion, Coach Popper, Duane, Joe Bob Blanton, Frank Fartley, Abilene, Charlene Duggs, Jacy Farrow, Gene Farrow, Lois Farrow “the only woman in Thalia who drank and made no bones about it”, Lester Marlow, Miss Mosey, Frank Crawford, Genevieve Morgan, Dan Morgan, “busted up in a rig accident”, John Cecil, Agnes Bean, Leroy Malone, Ruth Popper, “the home economics teacher, a frail little man named Mr. Wean”, Wilbur Tim, Bobby Sheen, Jackie Lee French (“Is your name really French or is that just something you like to do?”), Annie-Annie, Sandy, the Bunne brothers, Junior Mosey, “an obliging little girl named Winnie Snips”, to name a few.

Area Family not Suckered by Barbecue Dream

BOSTON, MA – A majority of the Walsh family celebrated the breakdown in talks aiming to bring a large barbecue to the area family’s suburban residence.  The “massive end of summer bash” was deep sixed when father Matt Walsh recognized his overriding responsibility to protect his family from undue expense or inconvenience. 

Clearly ambivalent, Walsh Sr. explained that he admired the family pride and ambition that wife Shirley and youngest daugher Emily brought to planning the get together.  “Obviously a big cookout is a great thing to bring family and friends together.  We even talked about inviting some of the neighbors.  We’d have a reason to put our volleyball net up in the side yard, and there’s the patio out back.  With the grill going and a couple of coolers of beer and soft drinks, something like this could be a real catylst for bringing the neighborhood together.”  Shirley Walsh brought up the possibility that most of the food arrangements would be covered by a “pot luck” system, and that it would be easy to open up space in the fridge and make the oven available for guests with hot dishes. 

However, oldest daugher Sara and twins Mike and Jack put up a surprisingly early, well organized, and persistant resistance to the idea of a “big do” on Spruce Street.  “Everyone knows,” Sara said patiently, “That these things never work out in favor of the hosts.  People blow off their RSVPs; people mooch shamelessly.  You can forget about them bringing good beer.  I just know that even if we shell out for microbrew we’re going to end up with a cooler of Budweisers floating in tepid water.  Dad says he’ll take care of all the shopping beforehand, but he’ll have to send me out at the last second to buy more steak or something.  Yeah I could save the receipt, but what guarantee do I have that he won’t forget to pay me back?”  Shirley Walsh reluctantly conceded that if friends didn’t take their leftovers right back with them that night, they’d be sure to leave only their ugliest, most awkwardly shaped tupperware behind.  “I’d probably take it to work in the trunk of my car, forget it for three months, and then guiltily try to return it, only to find that they didn’t want it back.” Her husband furrowed his brows and appeared to ponder this statement, but not before an expression of neurotic anger flashed across his face.

Emily Walsh was looking forward to finally inviting her friends to swim in the Walsh’s above ground pool, which has been covered all summer, only to see her most powerful argument turned against her by her brothers.  Said Mike Walsh, “If opening the pool is such a big priority for Emily, she should just open the pool.  She probably hasn’t priced out pool cleaning and chemicals for a while.”  Added Jack, with a significant look, “We know whose shoulders this is going to fall on: clearing off the patio, digging everything out of the basement… and when’s the last time you saw Dad pushing the lawn mower?  Then the cleanup.  All for leftover bean salad?”  Sensing an irretrievable disarray in the pro-parties party’s party-planning, Sara Walsh pushed hard on the question of infrastructure.  “I distinctly heard that there was going to be volleyball in the side yard, but now Mom’s offering to sacrifice her hydrangea to allow cars to get in there.  We can’t do both.”  Mom insisted that talks with the Hatchers for next door parking rights were “progressing”.

Several times during the fraught family meeting, the Walsh paterfamilias offered to put matters to a vote, but the no partisans saw the advantage of letting things drift into a stalemate.  With rational decisionmaking off the table, they began needling their father  with the concession that they would support any family activity he wished as long as he offered them blanket immunity from any personal sacrifices or alterations of their routine of any kind.  Finally Walsh snapped, “We probably just aren’t the kind of family that has parties.”  Emily Walsh later sniffed, “Now that we’re not doing it, our friends will probably go party with that redneck Johnson family that likes to set off illegal fireworks and always starts a brawl.  Or even with the Smiths; you can’t leave your car in their neighborhood.”