- Author: Larry McMurtry
- Published: 1966
“Sometimes Sonny felt like he was the only human creature in town.” So begins the The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry. Published in 1966, but taking place in 1951, The Last Picture Show is less a novel and more like a mesmerizing diary entry. So intimate and heartfelt, so raw and unflinching, it can at times leave you breathless, and then quickly turning the page for more. It is a novel about the yearnings of the heart, about the power and pointlessness of sex, and the struggle to feel something, anything, in a time and town where desire and hope are buried deep beneath the dry Texas dirt.
The town of Thalia is nowhere and everywhere. A dusty and forlorn Texas outpost of hardscrabble men and unadorned women. A place where cold northers sweep across the plains and rattle through the empty streets. It’s a town where everyone knows everyone, but where no one is really known. It’s a desolate and difficult place to grow up, which is exactly what Sonny Crawford and his best friend Duane Jackson are on the cusp of doing. They’re high school seniors, captains of the football team and largely raising themselves. With no families to speak much of, the two boys rent a room together at the local boarding house. Their days are a blur of school, work and practice for whatever sport is in season. They’re often so tired from their jobs in the oil fields that they sleep through most of their classes, which isn’t really a problem considering the only thing that matters in Thalia is the fortunes of the football team, which are dismal even by the town’s low standards.
As for entertainment, the only places that provide a modicum of frivolity are the local diner, movie house, and pool hall, all owned by Sam the Lion, one of the few older men around whom the boys can talk and turn to. Sonny and Duane live for Friday nights, when the pair of them flip a coin to determine who gets the pickup so they can escort their high school sweethearts to the movies for some serious necking. Duane is in love with the self-involved Jacy Farrow, the prettiest girl in school and daughter of the richest people in town. Sonny goes with Charlene Duggs, a wet blanket of a girlfriend whom he cavorts with to simply stave off the crushing boredom that can at times seem to envelope the plains themselves.
Everything in The Last Picture Show revolves around sex. Who’s having it, who wants it, who’s chasing it. There’s even a fair bit of beastiality, a shockingly not shocking occurrence when one considers the dismal environs and lack of options for the wayward youth of Thalia. Sex is the ultimate distraction amongst the boys of age. It seems to occupy their minds in total, almost out of necessity, lest some existential questions of purpose and happiness start to creep into their consciousness. Duane thinks he has it all in Jacy, but it’s Sonny who soon hits the jackpot, taking up with his football coach’s neglected wife, the haunting and pitiable Ruth Popper, who’s desperate to feel wanted, let alone acknowledged. Their scenes together are heartbreaking and sensual. Pathetic and beautiful. McMurtry shines when mining the psyches of his lovelorn characters. Ruth’s is an ache you can feel in your bones. Her affair with Sonny becomes her everything, the lone spark in the void of her existence.
There’s not much of a plot in The Last Picture Show, which is sort of the point. The revelations and lessons learned and earned by Sonny and Duane are seismic and shattering, but almost entirely hidden from those around them. The desperate loneliness of Thalia becomes a character in and of itself, lurking around every corner. The Last Picture Show is ultimately a coming-of-age tale. A story about a pair of friends learning lessons of love, heartbreak, betrayal and empathy. Like most Texans, it’s blunt and to-the-point in its portrayal of not only carnal desire, but of sex as both a weapon and a balm, a source of shame and redemption. It’s elegiac characters and setting stay with you long after it’s over. Near the end, there's a description of Sonny, feeling forgotten and insignificant at his old high school football game that is devastating in it’s force. The Last Picture Show captures the folly of youth, and the anguish of aging like no other novel I’ve ever read. It’s an arrow to the heart, with the scar to prove it - a classic in every sense of the word. Not bad for a novel where nothing much happens.