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In short, it’s about everything a great European style restaurant is all about. h k oc e en Oi s :t i Cafe 310 East 6th St. Austin, Texas There has yet to be a novel or a film to show how much this general glaze of “character” is often a form of conformity; how much it is inseparable from the general level of the state’s alcoholism and/or druggism; and how much it’s contributed to the boring sameness of Texan’ art in general a sameness not only in style but in level, in depth. Concerns which go far beyond this slight essay. The give-away in McMurtry’s work is easy: he can only make his characters believable by grossly simplifying the contexts they live in. What could be more full of cross-purposes, secret projects, and colliding obsessions than a Texas small town? And where do you find a clue to these embroilments in McMurtry’s rural novels? When they appear at all, it’s as gracenotes to his melodramas. Rarely does he indicate, much less analyze, the fact that the suffocating limits you feel in the very air of such places are rigidly enforced by interests with large stakes in keeping the town under control. The movies made from these novels simply enlarge their lacks, with the exception of The A novelist structuring his book for that kind of bitter-sweet rush at the end . . . has to exert control where control has no place . . . because bitter-sweet rushes are only appropriate in a narrow spectrum of experience. Last Picture Show a better movie than it is a novel, because Peter Bogdanovich, its director, imbued the characters with a barely-controlled hysteria that’s right on the mark for small-town life. In the novel that atmosphere is forsaken for a restless stasis between nostalgia for the past and a longing for the unknown. Hud \(from the novel Horseman, Pass works beautifully as melodrama, though it could have been set anywhere you could build a corral. And I even confess a weakness for Lovin’ Molly \(from the novel if only because I saw it at a drive-in in Clarendon, Texas, on one of the lovelier nights of my most important summer. But there isn’t an emotion or an insight in either of these novels or these films that couldn’t be found in a first-rate collection of Country-and-Western hits from the same years. The directors of these, pictures Bogdanovich, Martin Ritt, and Sidney Lumet were each raised East-Coast, liberal, and Jewish, and so would have no idea of the frightening force that fundamentalist religious paranoia exerts in asmall Texas town but McMurtry certainly should. It’s not the fault of these directors that the edgy undercurrent of this religious feeling is left out of their movies; but how can you explain it being shunted aside in supposedly serious novels about Texas smalt-town life? McMurtry misses the meat because he falls into the first and worst trap that awaits a novelist: he becomes so fond of his. characters that he hates to reveal anything dark about their inners. He’s forced to, to a limited extent, by the demands of dramatic narrative; but his novels usually end with the nostalgic rush of a character who, if the truth be told, would like nothing better than to go back to Page One and relive the whole experience again, right now. That’s a good way to entertain and a bad way to tell the truth. A novelist structuring his book for that kind of bitter-sweet rush at the end, limits the sort of things he can tell in the beginning and the middle. He has to exert control where control has no place, a control on his range and his depth, because bitter-sweet rushes are only appropriate in a narrow spectrum of experience. Which brings us back to that distinction between “entertainment” and “art.” “Entertainment” gives us fear, love, grief, whatever, in a manner that feels .completely under our, and the writer’s, control. Which is to say, it is completely false. Because when we really feel grief, love, fear, or any significant emotion, the very nature of the feeling is to be somewhat out of control, beyond the bounds, into uncharted, dangerous waters. Likewise, when we are in the grip of a new thought, or when our values are being challenged, we don’t feel safe. Unlike entertainment, art is useless unless it dares. McMurtry’s novels, and the movies made from them, boil down largely to flamboyance for flamboyance’s sake, devoid of context and, ultimately, of consequences for his contrived nostalgias water down any portrayal of consequences. The Last Picture Show transcends this some, but more as a Bogdanovich film than as a McMurtry novel. His work leaves me with a question that Billy Lee Brammer asked in The Gay Place, the only Texan novel of the first rank to date: “Was there only the intense gesture in the empty air?” THE TEXAS OBSERVER 17