The Last Picture Show


Larry McMurtry




Date Reviewed:

May 31, 2021

read in the newspaper that Larry McMurtry had died. His obituary mentioned two of his most famous novels: Lonesome Dove and The Last Picture Show. I loved Lonesome Dove, it is a wonderful book about a cattle drive from the Mexican border up to Montana, where Gus and Cal hope to establish a ranch. Lonesome Dove is one of my favorite books. I wondered why I hadn't read more of McMurtry's novels, and since The Last Picture show was his other novel mentioned in the obituary, I figured it must be his second best novel. Could it come close to the greatness of Lonesome Dove? Sadly, no. I generously awarded The Last Picture Show just three stars; and I rounded up because McMurtry did write Lonesome Dove.

The Last Picture Show tells the story of one year in the life of Sonny. When the novel opens, Sonny has just played his last high school football game. He is a high school senior in the remote Texas town of Thalia high school; but now Sonny's football career is over. Sonny will miss the game, despite the fact the Thalia team was terrible. In fact, Sonny doesn't know what to do with his life. He lives alone, estranged from his father. Sonny has no plans, no goals, no creativity, no ambition. I guess this is supposed to be a portrait of real life, but Sonny's life is completely empty. His best friend is Duane. The two of them have "adventures" which involve lots of drinking and an incredible amount of sex. It is hard to believe that anywhere in 1950s America that there would be that amount of sex. The entire town would be smitten with venereal disease and pregnancy if this depiction were accurate.

Thalia is insulated from the rest of the world. I read almost the entire novel thinking it was set in the 1960s (it was published in 1966) - it wasn't until the end, when Duane announces he is going to join the army, and he suspects that he will be sent to Korea, did I realize that the book was set in the early 1950s. There is no mention of the Cold War. Nothing about WWII veterans. The outside world doesn't intrude at all.

There are two adults who are at least sympathetic characters: Sam the Lion, who runs the pool hall, and Genevieve, who works all night at the diner, trying to earn enough to money to pay off the enormous $4000 medical bills that her husband accrued in a work-place accident. Although Sam and Genevieve like Sonny, they don't provide him any adult guidance. They don't tell him to save his money, to go get a higher education, to get out of Thalia and see the world, to apply himself to a career and make something of his life. Mostly they just nod their heads at Sonny's exploits.

At one point, Sonny is blinded in one eye and spends 10 days in the hospital. Oddly, he doesn't lose his job, nor does he suffer enormous medical bills. Despite the fact that Sonny is working full time after high school, his job is barely mentioned. A full time job should provide Sonny with contacts and new friends and perhaps some purpose, but the job mostly seems to be mentioned as an explanation of how Sonny has more cash for his next round of whoring and drinking.

The Last Picture Show is supposed to be a poignant coming-of-age tale, but Sonny doesn't mature at all during the course of the book. Sonny isn't actually likeable. He participates in some cruel activities (McMurtry has Sonny feeling some guilt about the ongoing debauchery, but Sonny never puts a stop to whatever awfulness is proceeding.) Nor is Sonny's friend, Duane any more likeable - the two young men are peas in a pod, united in their unthinking, careless awfulness. The beautiful girl, Jacy, that Duane lusts after, steadily becomes more unlikeable with every scene she is in. Jacy is shown to be calculating and manipulative. There is no romance in this book. No wonder. It is definitely "literature" - rather than tell a story with a plot that builds to tense climax, this novel simply decays into emptiness, until at the end there is literally nothing but Sonny sitting around, a year out of high school, and the high point of his life seemingly past. I don't recommend this book.