Larry McMurtry’s 1966 novel, the last of his Thalia trilogy. I read a Penguin Contemporary American Fiction edition.
4 out of 5 stars.
Times Read: 1
Seen the Movie: Not yet. It’s been on my watchlist for years – I need to get to it.
Teens don’t have much to do in small-town Thalia, Texas. They can visit the pool hall or picture show or bring dates to the lake (and see how far they can go).
Adults of Thalia can regret decisions they made as teens.
This was my first Larry McMurtry book. I have no idea how it took me this long to read his work. I need to read more. The Last Picture Show was fantastic; solid prose, honest and touching without beating the reader over the head with sentimentality. The story takes place in 1951 Texas but some small-town truths are universal and timeless. My upbringing in 1990s Vermont was enough for me to relate to these characters.
My biggest complaint? Sonny’s first girlfriend (Charlene) drops off the face of the earth after he breaks up with her. In a town as small as Thalia with so few social groups, I don’t see how they could have gone on without running into each other. And if McMurtry was just using Charlene as a pawn to get Sonny to make his next decisions, I don’t know why she was given so much personality and screen time in the opening chapters.
But that’s it. Honestly, I wouldn’t change anything else about this book.
 First line:
Sometimes Sonny felt like he was the only human creature in the town.
 This must be a joke, right?
He drove a butane truck for Frank Fartley of Fartley Butane and Propane.
With this being my first McMurtry book, I had a hard time gauging his sense of humor. I think he has one. There are subtle jabs and winks here and there (see note ), though this book handles its subject in a mostly deadpan way.
Penny was a 185-pound redhead, not given to idle threats. She was Church of Christ and didn’t mind calling a sinner a sinner. Five years before she had accidentally gotten pregnant before she was engaged; the whole town knew about it and Penny got a lot of backhanded sympathy. The ladies of the community thought it was just awful for a girl that fat to get pregnant.
Sonny never got the pickup first on Saturday night and Duane always felt slightly guilty about it but not quite guilty enough to change anything.
Sonny set out for Megargel, a town even smaller than Thalia.
Megargel is a town in Archer County, Texas. The population was 203 at the 2010 census. The town is named for Roy C. Megargel, the president of the railroad that developed the town. It was established in 1910. In 1914, there were 350 residents. The highest the population ever went was 1,200 in 1927.
Thalia is an unincorporated community in Foard County in north Texas. In 1990, the population was 104. Its name was given to the town portrayed in a number of Larry McMurtry’s novels but McMurtry’s “Thalia” is widely considered to be modeled on his own North Texas hometown of Archer City, about 60 miles from Thalia.
In Greek mythology, Thalia (“the joyous, the flourishing”) is a nymph, the child of Hephaestus. She is also given as an anthropomorphic secondary deity of plant life and shoots.
Archer City, McMurtry’s hometown, is a city in Archer County, Texas. The population was 1,834 at the 2010 census. The city is named for Branch Tanner Archer, a commissioner for the Republic of Texas. In 2014, an 18-year-old named Kelvin Green was elected Mayor.
It was very important to Lester that he do something big, and since losing was a lot easier than winning, he contented himself with losing big.
The movie that night was called Storm Warning, and the posterboards held pictures of Doris Day, Ronald Reagan, Steve Cochran, and Ginger Rogers.
Storm Warning is a 1951 American film noir thriller, directed by Stuart Heisler. (It seems to be a thriller about the KKK.)
Steve Cochran (1917 – 1965) was an American film, television and stage actor. He graduated from the University of Wyoming and worked as a cowboy before acting in local theater, which led to Broadway, film and television. He appeared in many films, including The Best Year of Our Lives (1946), White Heat (1949). He was also in the Twilight Zone episode “What You Need.”
Once when an aunt gave her a dollar for her birthday she went down to the variety store and bought two fifty-cent portraits to sit on her dresser: one was of June Allyson and the other Van Johnson.
June Allyson (born Eleanor Geisman; 1917 – 2006) was an American stage, film and television actress, dancer, and singer. Allyson’s “girl next door” image was solidified during the mid-1940s when she was paired with actor Van Johnson in five films.
Marlene (…) had to make do with Esther Williams and Mickey Rooney.
When he was only fourteen Brother Blanton slipped into his room one night and caught him masturbating by flashlight over a picture of Esther Williams.
Esther Jane Williams (1921 – 2013) was an American competitive swimmer and actress. Williams set multiple national and regional swimming records in her late teens as part of the Los Angeles Athletic Club swim team. After appearing in several small roles, alongside Mickey Rooney in an Andy Hardy film, and future five-time co-star Van Johnson in A Guy Named Joe, Williams made a series of films in the 1940s and early 1950s known as “aquamusicals,” which featured elaborate performances with synchronized swimming and diving.
Miss Mosey had taken the Storm Warning posters down and was gallantly trying to tack up the posters for Sunday’s show, which was Francis Goes to the Army.
Francis the Talking Mule was a mule character who became a celebrity during the 1950s as the star of seven popular Universal-International film comedies. The character originated in the 1946 novel Francis by former U.S. Army Captain David Stern III (1909 – 2003).
I can’t find a film titled Francis Goes to the Army, but around the time The Last Picture Show takes place, there was Francis Goes to West Point (1952). Leonard Nimoy had a small, uncredited speaking role as a football player.
They had an aunt who lived in Kizer [Arkansas].
There does appear to be a Kizer, Arkansas, but I can’t find information about it besides the fact that it is in Lafayette County.
The steam from her coffee rose between them as he ate his cheeseburger. The window by the booth was all fogged over, but the misted glass was cold to the touch, and the knowledge that the freezing wind was just outside made the booth seem all the cozier. Genevieve sat quietly, her hands on the coffee cup; the warmth against her palms was lovely, but it made her a little too nostalgic for all the winter nights she had spent at home, sleeping against her husband. Then her whole body had felt as warm and comfortable as her palms felt against the cup.
He started reading “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” but the class was not listening.
“Ode on a Grecian Urn” is a poem written by the English Romantic poet John Keats in May 1819. The text of the poem with explanation can be found on Wikipedia.
Agnes reached under the desk, slipped off her brogan shoe, and turned and cold-cocked him.
A brogan is a heavy, ankle-high shoe or boot.
All the boys were throwing three-quarter court peg shots, like Ozark Ike in the comics.
Ozark Ike was a newspaper comic strip about dumb but likable Ozark Ike McBatt, a youth from a rural area in the mountains. The strip was created by Rufus A. (“Ray”) Gotto while he was serving in the Navy during World War II in Washington, D.C. as an illustrator for Navy instruction manuals. Ozark Ike is an all-around athlete, playing baseball, football and basketball. Between seasons, he enters the boxing ring.
There were five or six stuffed animals (…); they were grouped in one corner, around a large Mortimer Snerd doll.
Edgar Bergen (1903 – 1978) was an American actor, comedian and radio performer, best known for his proficiency in ventriloquism and his characters Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. He is also the father of actress Candice Bergen. Mortimer Snerd was developed as a character for a radio program. He was a red-headed buck-toothed, goofy-looking doll.
 A conversation between mother and daughter (who have the most interesting relationship of the book):
“But I don’t care about money,” Jacy said solemnly. “I don’t care about it at all.”
Lois sighed. “You’re pretty stupid then,” she said.
“Ruth (…) needs someone to drive her to Olney to the doctor.”
Olney is a city in Young County, Texas. The population was 3,285 in 2010.
When she smiled at him there was a pressure behind the smile, as if something inside her were trying to break through her skin.
“You must really think I’m crazy,” she said. “I am crazy I guess.”
“Why’s that?” Sonny asked.
“What?” Ruth said, caught by surprise.
“I mean why do you feel crazy? I guess I shouldn’t be askin’.”
“Of course you should,” she said. “I was just surprised you had the nerve.”
Genevieve was sitting at the counter reading an old paperback of Forever Amber that everyone who worked at the café had read several times.
Forever Amber was also mentioned in A Midnight Clear (Post 2, note ) in a very similar context:
There’s no book around to read now except one called Forever Amber.
(A Midnight Clear, p.145)
Forever Amber (1944) is a romance novel by Kathleen Winsor. Apparently there were a lot of copies lying around.
 The Last Picture Show is written in third person and switches perspectives freely, sometimes within the same paragraph. We get to know what everyone is thinking but never grow too close to any single character. It works amazingly well for this book.
When [Sonny] got to the car and saw what Jacy and Duane were doing, he hated to interrupt, but he wanted to let them know about Jacy’s parents. Finally he rapped on the windshield a time or two and went hastily back inside.
Duane was annoyed that Sonny had even knocked. He was deliriously caressing Jacy’s bosom, and gladly would have given up the dance for another hour with Jacy in her present mood. For her part, Jacy was quite ready to go in, though she was careful not to show it.
(p.69 – 70)
The girl was angry, but she was shorter than Lois and much younger and didn’t quite know what to do with her anger.
 I can’t believe the vivid scenes and histories McMurtry can create with so few words:
All the kids got out of the pool and sat on the edge, kicking their feet in the water. One little kid surprised Jacy no end. He was by far the youngest, littlest kid there; he had freckles and a burr haircut and looked about thirteen, and he had on a green diving mask. While they were all waiting for Lester to untie his shoes the kid walked right past Jacy to get a towel. What surprised Jacy was his penis, which stuck straight out. It wasn’t very big or anything but it certainly was sticking out and Jacy thought it was just awful that he would walk around with it like that. A couple of the other girls giggled.
“That’s my little brother Sandy,” Bobby Sheen said. “Don’t pay any attention to him – he’s not in the club. He just likes to swim under water with his mask on and look at girls while he fiddles with himself. If he gooses you or anything tell me and I’ll make him go to bed.
I’m completely feeling Jacy’s unease. I remember bullshit like this – friends’ little brothers copping a feel, looking under restroom stalls, walking into changing rooms – and having it laughed off and brushed aside (“He’s just being a boy”). Heaven forbid we tell boys not to be invasive and threatening.
Some of the younger, illiterate kids thought that all women had black hair in that particular place, but the better-read youths soon convinced them otherwise by reference to the panty-dropping scene in I The Jury, a book the local drugstore could never keep in stock.
I, the Jury (1947) is the debut novel of American crime-fiction writer Mickey Spillane, the first work to feature private investigator Mike Hammer. It was adapted into a film in 1953. The novel’s reputation for raciness and violence has outlasted the popularity of the book itself.
 Several pages are devoted to sex with animals. It’s handled as simple matter-of-fact, no moralizing or judgement laid down. The narrator shows us without telling us how to think:
“We could go on down to the stockpens,” Leroy suggested. “There’s a blind heifer down there we could fuck. She belongs to my uncle. There’s enough of us we could hold her down. It’d be as good a place as any to get Billy drunk.”
The prospect of copulation with a blind heifer excited the younger boys almost to frenzy, but Duane and Sonny, being seniors, gave only tacit approval. They regarded such goings on without distaste, but were no longer as rabid about animals as they had been.