Rediscovered Classic: The Last Picture Show

“Sometimes Sonny felt he was the only human creature in the town.”

Thus Larry McMurtry sets the table for his novel The Last Picture Show. The town is Thailia, Texas, and the year is 1951. Though the name Thailia means “paradise,” only the wildest optimist would dub this wind-swept, isolated, provincial clutch of humanity paradise. Like many small towns, the high school is the pulsating center of life, the high point of the locals’ lives. Some escape the town through wars, jobs or college, but most marry high school sweethearts, find one of the few sustaining jobs in town, have children and let life take over. Beyond the high school in Thailia, the only sources of entertainment are the picture show, football, the pool hall, alcohol and sex, of course, sex.
Adults and teens alike reach out to each other with a kind of visceral desperation – a force raw and lonely. The pool hall shark, Abilene, hones his craft at the expense of the few rubes who have money to lose. Brother Blanton regularly stokes revival fervor and urges the town to “get right with God” while the dancehalls swing, and the houses of pleasure flourish. Teens swim in the nude, and mothers sip from their hidden flasks while their husbands dissect the latest football games or stare at the tiny TV’s beginning to spring up in homes. And all the while, night after night at the picture show, Doris Day, Ronald Regan, John Wayne and Ginger Rogers shine like the stars they are.  

If it all sounds bleak, well, it is. But having said that, I feel the book radiates with humor and profound understanding of the heart. When life is stripped down to the bottom, it’s really not all that different from life at the very top. And there are intense moments of honesty that snatch your breath: Lois and Jacy have a mother-daughter chat about marriage, fidelity and money; Sam the Lion takes Sonny fishing and wistfully recounts the beautiful ache of an earlier forbidden love; Genevieve the waitress reaches out to Sonny and Duane with loving advice and extra pieces of apricot pie; Billy, the developmentally disabled young man whose  broom endlessly sweeps the town, offers a fixed point of gentle goodness; Ruth, the neglected wife of Neanderthal Coach Popper, ends the book with a soothing stroke of Sonny’s arm saying, “Honey, never you mind.”
And we feel that somehow, despite terrible odds, everyone, while not living happily ever after as the credits roll, is at least surviving  - and some with a slight smile.

--Lois Glick, Great Falls Library

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