AS REVIEWED BY ELROY BODE ‘The Last Picture Show The Last Picture Show: By Larry McMurtry. The Dial Press. $4.50. I wish I were dealing with either of Larry McMurtry’s first two novels; my job would be far more pleasurable. I could speak glowingly of a young author’s immense talent as demonstrated in Horseman, Pass By; or after blasting the professional critics who ignored Leaving Cheyenne I could then proceed with great energy to chronicle all the beautifullydone things in the opening and closing sections of that fine book. But the novel at hand bothers me because I cannot be as enthusiastic about it as I expected to be. I very much wanted this third book to knock my eyes out: I wanted to read the final page, shake my head admiringly, and say, All right, it’s beyond dispute; he’s our new Steinbeck. Well, I think he actually is, but The Last Picture Show does not prove his title the way the previous books did. W HEN YOU UNDERTAKE to render critical statements about one of the best writers in Texas a person who, in my opinion, has the cleanest and best novelistic talent in the state you must make it quite clear in the beginning that what you are trying to do is show how close to perfection Larry McMurtry got or didn’t get. You must indicate that in the hope of finding a perfectly-executed book, a perfect drawing together of plot, tone, mood, theme, and character, you may have a tendency to take for granted the author’s many good points thus making scant mention of them in your rush to find out if the book is truly great. \( This kind of reviewing is very hard on the author, of course, who doesn’t ask that anyone find his work flawless or great who has just worked at his book as best he could and would like that good So let me say first that in his book *Mr. McMurtry once again demonstrates that he writes flawless dialogue the best small town and country talk since Faulkner; that throughout the book he writes immensely readable words; that his people have a remarkable ease and naturalness as they speak and move about; that the narrative never creaks or strains. His wild basketball game is surely the most memorable one ever put into print. In describing sexual acts and relationships he writes with all the sensitivity and insight of John Updike. And I would rather go into a cafe with Mr. McMurtry’s characters than with any I have met since the good Steinbeck days of the ’30s. *Since it seems an unnecessary discourtesy to refer to an author merely by his last name, I will not do so; use of only the last name often makes the reviewer sound smug or implies an adversely-critical view toward the writer. Now I don’t care what a person chooses to write about, or is compelled to write about, in a book. Whatever he knows well and is able to handle artistically, that is what I am ready to read. Take sex: Nelson Algren, telling about his trip to India in Notes from a Sea Diary, gives a straightforward account of the various whores and pimps he met in Calcutta and Bombay and other-ports along the Asian coast. In doing so he never seems like a man obsessed with sex. Sex he knows about and sex he values, but the sexual impulse is not running through his book like an open current. I am not going to say that Larry McMurtry is obsessed with sex in this book; it is just that artistically the book is less effective than it could be because the sexual urge, the sexual entanglement, the sexual act and apparatus are dealt with so relentlessly, so continuously, that the reader almost gets to the point of not believing that the events are really happening. Deep in his emotions he does not take the Thalia people or their sexual adventures as seriously as he should. For example, during the course of the book Sonny Crawford, the main character, tries to make out with Charlene Duggs; Duane, his buddy, tries to make out with Jacy Farrow, the most desirable girl in town; Duane and a group of high school boys copulate with a blind heifer at the town stock pens; Billy, a slow-witted helper at the poolhall, is forced into an unsuccessful union with a carhop; Coach Popper, the football coach, has possibly homosexual intentions when he kisses a boy’s ear one night; Sonny begins going to bed regularly with Coach Popper’s wife; Duane finally makes out with Jacy; Jacy starts fornicating with Lester Marlow and Bobby Sheen, rich boys from Wichita Falls; Sonny and Duane sleep with a couple of Matamoros prostitutes; John Cecil, the high school English teacher, is fired on a trumped-charge of homosexuality; Abilene, an oil field driller and pool shark, takes his pleasure with Jacy on top of a pool table; Lois FaFrow, Joey’s mother, goes to bed with Sonny on what was supposed to have been Sonny’s wedding night with Jacy; Joe Bob Blanton, the preacher’s son, is accused of raping a five-year-old girl; in Fort Worth Sonny and Duane seek out whores in The New Deal Hotel and in between times there is enough breast-fondling and masturbating and pubic hair watching to keep up the story line. Even though Horseman, Pass By was made into a successful and worthy movie Leaving Cheyenne is also to be a movie; and even though there are a number of scenes in this book the trip to Matamoros, the nude swimming scene, the senior trip to San Francisco, the basketball game, etc. which seem to be ready-made for a film, I do not believe the author had one eye on the movies while he was writing. I think that going around in Larry McMurtry’s head was a place, a group of people, some situations, and so he proceeded to tell about them with all his considerable skill. But to what end? What was the driving force that kept him returning day after day to his manuscript? What did he want us to think and feel as we read his finished work? I am not sure of the answer and thus believe that there is a conflict of purposes in the book. Viewed one way, The Last Picture Show can be regarded as a kind of comedy of sexual errors: the author, as satirist of small town people and preoccupations, makes Thalia into a North Texas, small-potatoes Sodom. Coach Popper is presented to us as a caricature, a larger-than-life-sized ass. The basketball game with Paducah, superbly rendered as it is, tends toward being a comical exaggeration of life. Yet the author obviously wanted us to regard Ruth Popper, the coach’s wife, not as a caricature but as a human being to be valued and understood. He wanted us to feel the anguish of Sam the Lion’s cry: “Goddammit! Goddammit! . . . I don’t want to be old. It don’t fit me.” He wanted us to watch Lois Farrow and see what made her run. THIS IS Larry McMurtry’s first “town” book, and I think the change from the country to Thalia’s streets explains, in part, what bothered me in the novel. In his previous books he moved his characters across the land, related them strongly to the land: the land was almost a character itself. By situating his people in town in this story I think the author was forced to operate without the saving grace of the land that sense of poetry and proportion he demonstrated so well when dealing mainly with country and ranch people. A contemporary of Scott Fitzgerald once said that he drew the finest and purest tone from English of any writer then alive. Mr. McMurtry can also bring a fine tone from the language, but in The Last Picture Show he seldom gets any overtones. Much of the earlier poetic ring is missing. To me this is because putting it in a corny way he seems to be writing out of his head instead of his heart. He is using his sharp eye and great skill to present us many good scenes, but he does not seem to care very deeply for what he is writing about. He knows it God, yes but he does not bring to it the warmth January 20, 1967 17
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