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The Last Picture Show

posted on 01 Jul 2017

The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry

Considering the fame of McMurtry’s best known book, and the Peter Bogdanovich film it was the basis for – with a very young Cybil Shepherd as the conscienceless sex-pot, Jacy – it seems odd that I have never previously read a word the man has written. I don’t know why. It may be because at the time the book enjoyed its greatest cult following (I seem to remember selling it hand-over-fist in the early-70s, presumably in the years following the release of the film) it was available in a rather unpleasant paperback. It has now been rejacketed in the Penguin Modern Classics series (deservedly so) with a handsome black-and-white film still of Shepherd on the front.

Thalia is a dying 1950s prairie small-town in West Texas. College football, sex, drinking, and an old almost extinct breed of cattlemen and cowboys – now losing ground and money to newly-rich oil men – dominate the scene.

There isn’t much plot to the novel. It’s a sort of shaggy dog story, in some respects. You read it for the flawless dialogue, the simple and economical descriptive writing, the relationships between characters, the smart but self-effacing authorial voice – and most of all for the humour. It is one of the funniest books of its kind that I have ever read.

It reminds me a little of Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat, but without Steinbeck’s sometimes heavy-handed moralising and worthiness. But don’t get me wrong. That doesn’t mean that McMurtry is unrelievedly cynical or satirical. Oddly, he is neither of these things. He writes about small-town life and his cast of characters with great warmth and humanity – even when (perhaps especially when) they least deserve it.

The characters are perhaps a little thinly drawn, but somehow this doesn’t matter. The situational comedy, the authorial voice and the dialogue all combine – somewhat like the notes of a well-made perfume – to support the main event. And the main event is a warm, affectionate, good-humoured look at 1950s small-town life in the US – right at the cusp of its disappearance. Everyone knows there must be more to life; everyone wants more – achingly, desperately – but no one really knows what that something more might be. For Sonny and Duane – high school seniors, college football stars, best friends (even when Duane nearly blinds Sonny with a beer bottle) – that something more turns out to be a grainy scratched porn film (bestiality), projected onto the reverse of a yellowing calendar in a sweltering outhouse in Mexico, followed by an ageing (and pregnant) prostitute. Now that sounds disgusting and not in the least funny, but McMurtry’s immense talent is to take what one reviewer called the “basest materials” of episodes such as this and transmute them into gold – humane, darkly but never maliciously funny, and all done with a tone that never falters.

If, like me, you too have unaccountably missed out on The Last Picture Show, then do yourself a favour and buy the Penguin Modern Classic. Because it really is a classic. It isn’t the least bit difficult to read. There is nothing at all experimental or ‘challenging’ about it. It doesn’t seek to tackle grand themes or complex ideas. And yet you finish it realising that somehow it has done all of these things – slyly, apparently effortlessly and with a flawless ear for dialogue and pace and rhythm. It is greater than the sum of its parts and its apparent simplicity masks the underlying sophistication of both its writing and what it has to say about the human condition.

This novel is fifty-one years old this year and yet it wears every one of those years with grace and charm. How – why – did I ignore it for so long? I shall always treasure it for the wonderful dialogue. This, for instance, said about Jacy by her equally sex-mad mother, Lois: “If we don't get that little bitch off to college she's going to ruin the whole town.” Read it with a Texas drawl. It’s an astonishing draught of cool, clear air.

 

Alun Severn

July 2017