Flowery opining and editorial insight aside, Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show is a great book full of truth. It’s funny, sad, and sometimes mean. Most of all, to me, it’s true. LPS finds the heart of what small town life is like, especially small town life in Texas.
McMurtry probably sounds familiar, even to a casual reader. He wrote Lonesome Dove. That book, his most famous, was supposed to be his subversion of the western. Somehow, it became one of the most iconic westerns. I don’t think McMurtry ever quite knew what to make of that. LPS is much smaller in scope than Lonesome Dove, and takes place in 1950s Thalia, Texas. It centers around Sonny, a high school senior who roughnecks at night and spends his free time trying to get laid. I don’t know if Sonny is particularly sympathetic as a protagonist, but he is a fine avatar for the reader’s own memories of yearning and confusion during the transition from childhood to adulthood. He is surrounded by Duane (his best friend), Jacy (Duane’s girlfriend), Sam the Lion (poolhall owner), and Genevieve (waitress).
Plot-wise, not much happens in LPS. There are some football games, some dances, some dalliances. What’s interesting in the book is how the characters deal with the fact that not much is happening, and that not much may ever happen. Some characters can’t wait to leave Thalia. Some don’t see any reason to ever leave. Most of McMurtry’s characters want to find meaning and connection. They don’t want to be ghosts, going through the motions they’ve always gone through, haunting their familiar places.
It could’ve been easy for McMurtry to draw his characters in caricature, but they are all more substantive than that. There is depth and resolve to anyone he spends more than a couple of pages on. The book observes some nasty traits while also admiring (I think) the resiliency of the average human being. Maybe I am more optimistic than McMurtry, but that’s what I felt when reading this book in a post-Friday Night Lights world.