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 Dove, The 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.