The Last Picture Show – 4/5 Stars
In this novel, Sonny and Duane (along with their various and interchanging townsfolk) are in their small Texas town during their senior year of high school trying to figure out what their present is, and maybe what their future is. There’s no past to speak of. So the boys are stuck, playing sports, drinking and driving, whoring, trying to get married, and not doing their schoolwork (napping or otherwise in class). There’s nothing but questions in this book, and definitely very few answers to speak of.
This is the novel that the movie is based on, and minus the curious choice to make the film black and white by director Peter Bogdanovich and the toning down of the horseplay and oafishness, it’s pretty much the same.
The difference though also, is that in this novel Larry McMurtry is at his very driest best. The novel is incredibly laconic (if something can be) and it’s not wry per se, but it is understated throughout. The boys, Sonny and Duane, are languoring in their home town and dying to go out and do something, but at the same time, since there’s nothing out there for them either (seen especially true in the more or less empty lives of the adult characters, they’re dying to stay young too.
There’s a kind of balance then in the characters….the being caught between too young and too old. And given that this novel feels a lot of the time like a fictionalized version of the Beach Boys song “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” there’s an impeding sense of….not doom, but mediocrity awaiting them.
Horseman, Pass By – 4/5 Stars
In this novel, Larry McMurtry’s first, we have the story of Lonnie on his grandfather’s cattle ranch. At this ranch lives his step-grandmother, his step-uncle Hud, Halmea, the Black cook and housekeeper, and various other cowhands and cowboys. Like in the previous novel, this story takes place in Thalia, Texas, and mostly revolves around the listless and unbearableness of life in a small town, where only cattle work, fairs, rodeos, and other temporal distractions. Different though is that this novel has a more active plot. Hud is a real piece of shit (which is interesting to me to think about the film version of this “Hud” that came out in 1963–I will rent it soon and think about the difference, but I think it’s very very bad in comparison), who whines, acts superior, drinks, whores, and acts in weird entitled ways…especially weird given that he acts about 24, but is actually 35. And so Lonnie is caught between the much too old male figure in his grandfather, and the very unworthy figure of Hud to look toward. So he commits more to the other men around town, and also finds him wanting. And so his strange internal feelings about himself and especially sexuality don’t find guiding hands. He develops and entertains a more or less healthy and fraught sexual attraction to Halmea, who recognizes this crush (it’s more than a crush, so much as a perpetual lust) and creates reasonable boundaries. Lonnie can’t understand those boundaries…about wanting a thing and not being able to have a thing…or how to process and act within the constraints and boundaries created by their relative positions of power (employment, and more especially race), and this relationship remains affectionate, but guarded.
The story moves in the direction of how a bout of hoof and mouth disease threatens the herd at the ranch. Although they would be paid if the herd had to slaughtered (so the concerns are not financial), the damage the business and the closing off of the future is a real danger. And so this potential danger remains a looming presence on the novel.
Leaving Cheyenne – 4/5 Stars
Of the three novels, this one is the most ambitious. It’s not necessarily the best (I think Last Picture Show is still that), but it’s a good novel that challenges form in some interesting ways, and challenges mores for sure in some interesting ways. The story here is more or less a version of the French novel Jules et Jim which was made into a film as well. I am not sure whether McMurtry read or followed which of the two, but given his penchant for reading and when this novel was written/published, it seems more likely he read it instead of seeing it (or one, then the other).
This is about a long-term love triangle. Gid, our opening narrator, is best friends with Johnny and both of them, in categorically different ways, love Molly, who also loves them in different ways. Gid proves to be the more reliable of the two, but Johnny is undeniably more attractive and sexier. But in addition, the boys share an unspoken connection with each other, and while this novel doesn’t finalize with some kind of threesome, there’s a hint of something there beyond the friendship.
The structure becomes more challenged, and this is a first for me among the various McMurtry novels, by McMurtry giving each of the three figures their own section to narrate. Gid begins by focusing on the early parts of the novel taking place around 1925, Molly picks up later for a section in 1940s, and Johnny finishes out in the novel’s contemporary (1960s). This jump in time and voice allows for multiple facets of the story to be discussed as well helping to understand how this friendship and love triangle, in which both boys sleep with and father children with Molly comes about. There’s a clear indication that the novel and the characters understand they are breaking taboo subjects.