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The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry

The Last Picture Show by Larry McMurtry. (1966) French title: La dernière séance. Translated by Simone Hilling (1972)

When I saw La dernière séance by Larry McMurtry on the display table of a book store, I didn’t think of the film but of the eponymous song by French singer Eddy Mitchell, even if it doesn’t have anything to do with the book. That and the fact that it’s published by Gallmeister prompted me to buy it.

Duanne and Sonny live in a small town in Texas, Thalia. We’re in 1951. They’re in high school and come from dysfunctional families. They are roommates in a boarding house and work after school to support themselves. Their circumstances don’t prevent them from being typical adolescents: school is barely tolerable, sport takes part of their free time, girls are the centre of their attention and the best moment of the week is Saturday night. We’re following Sonny’s point of view in this coming-of-age novel.

Sometimes Sonny felt like he was the only human creature in the town. It was a bad feeling, and it usually came on him in the mornings early, when the streets are completely empty, the way they were one Saturday morning in late November. The night before Sonny had played his last game of football for the Thalia High School, but it wasn’t that that made him feel so strange and alone. It was just the look of the town.

There was only one car parked on the courthouse square—the night watchman’s old white Nash. A cold norther was singing in off the plains, swirling long ribbons of dust down Main Street, the only street in Thalia with businesses on it.

Sonny is coming out of the protective shell of childhood and starts confronting himself with real life. He didn’t have a sheltered childhood but he’s mentally shifting from innocence to realization that adult life isn’t that easy. He’s going through the motions of his life without parents. Duanne is his constant companion and he relies on Sam the Lion, an old man who owns the billiard in town. He’s taken in Billie, the simpleton of the town and watches the teenagers to make sure they stay on the right path. The boys play billiard, go to the cinema more to make out with girls than to watch the film and play in all the sports team of the high school. (It seems to have too little students per school level to have enough different participants in each sport)

McMurtry_livreThe Last Picture Show doesn’t have a clear plot with a beginning, events and a conclusion. It only describes Sonny’s days, his growing awareness that life is not a Hollywood film. He doesn’t have a clear future. College is out of the equation, no exciting job is waiting for him. He doesn’t intend to leave Thalia; he lacks confidence in himself, encouragement to be ambitious for himself and to expect more from life. He doesn’t have an adult role model to push him forward. He’s an intelligent kid but he’s drifting away, he lets the flow bring him wherever it goes. I couldn’t help but think that he was a young plant lacking the right fertilizer that good parenting can bring. The adults around him aren’t great role models, especially the coach at school. Sam the Lion keeps Sonny and Duanne on their toes and obliges them to behave because he doesn’t tolerate bad behaviour in his business. In a town like Thalia, you can’t afford to be banned from the billiard joint, there aren’t enough possible replacement places for enjoyment. Apart from that, the boys rely on themselves.

The town of Thalia is a character in itself with its colourful characters, its small town atmosphere. Thalia is oppressing; it’s small, isolated and doesn’t have a lot of employment opportunities. Some small town live thanks to an important factory settled on their territory. Not Thalia. Courtesy of small town world, everybody knows everything about everybody, gossips are the rule. But despite its small size, Thalia has its social barrier between people and although Duanne dates Jacy, the local high school beauty and celebrity, he doesn’t have the economic power to marry her. It’s also a decade where sex is a taboo and a hypocritical one in a don’t-ask-don’t-tell kind of way, even if Thalia is not an overly religious town. It could be, we’re in the Bible belt after all. Larry McMurtry wrote at the beginning of the book: The Last Picture Show is lovingly dedicated to my home town. He was born in 1936 in a small town in Texas and he was 30 when this novel was published, which means his memories from his adolescence were fresh in his mind. This dedication is important because it sets the tone of the book with the word lovingly. Thalia is the kind of town an adolescent could loathe. It’s narrow-minded, small and boring. But McMurtry’s vision of Thalia is full of affection. Even if he doesn’t hide the drawbacks of such a tiny remote town, he’s nonetheless tolerant and forgiving.

I love cities and the anonymity they provide. I’m not fond of crowds but I like that they mean that people mind their own business and don’t notice if you change your car, your hair colour or of boyfriend. The Thalias of the world make me want to run to the other side of the country and I felt sorry for Sonny to be trapped in that kind of place. I wanted him to bolt and start afresh in the nearest city.

The Last Picture Show is a lovely book, a bit sad sometimes. It’s depicts well adolescence in small towns but shows that wherever you are, teenage angst is surprisingly alike. That comes with being human.

  1. Brian Joseph
    May 4, 2014 at 8:25 pm

    I really like your commentary on this one.

    In particular your observations on the small town verses the city dynamic. I guess that I am familiar with a little bit of both, perhaps experiencing the small town thing in a different context, that is through family. Perhaps that “everyone knows and is concerned with my business” thing created a bit of rebellion in me as well as others. Either way it is interesting stuff.

    Like

    • May 4, 2014 at 8:38 pm

      I can understand that living in a small community can bring comfort and support. Personnally, I couldn’t live in a village where people look at what you do all the time.

      Like

  2. May 4, 2014 at 11:41 pm

    There’s something about this author’s works (and I’ve never read any) that generates repulsion. He’s very popular here.

    Like

    • May 5, 2014 at 12:30 am

      What do you mean?
      And have you seen the film version of this book?

      Like

      • May 5, 2014 at 2:32 am

        No I haven’t seen the film. I connect this author with his westerns which I know I would hate.

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  3. May 5, 2014 at 8:58 am

    I’m totally with you on the small town/big city thing. I like big cities as well for that reason. I wasn’t familiar with the author. Does he normally write westerns? (Just saw Guy’s comment).

    Like

    • May 5, 2014 at 10:03 pm

      I don’t know what else he wrote. This publisher picks great books, after a few excellent books from their collection, I’m starting to just trust their choices.

      Like

    • May 7, 2014 at 10:02 am

      I have seen McMurtry’s ‘Lonesome Dove’ in many readers’ favourites lists. Some of my friends have also recommended it. To me, the thing that stands out is that last ‘r’ in McMurtry’s name. I have seen readers frequently missing out that last ‘r’ when they type out his name. I haven’t seen another name like his – very unique.

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      • May 7, 2014 at 10:19 am

        You’re right, Vishy. I’ve seen that mentioned quite a few times as well and was tempted to pick it up until I saw the page count ( 960pages) and that was that. The name is unusual.

        Like

        • May 7, 2014 at 10:24 am

          That page count made me shy away from the book too, Caroline 🙂 It is such a mammoth, isn’t it? Maybe some day when I have more time…

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      • May 7, 2014 at 10:56 pm

        I didn’t know that Lonesome Dove is such a famous book. Like Caroline and you, 900 pages is a put-off. The book must be really good if it’s that long.

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  4. May 7, 2014 at 9:58 am

    Nice review, Emma! I loved your comments on small town vs the big city. I have lived in both and have enjoyed my time in both, but after growing up I have been more comfortable living in the city. I love its anonymity as you have described it.

    Like

    • May 7, 2014 at 10:54 pm

      Thanks Vishy, it’s worth reading.

      Like

  5. May 20, 2014 at 12:09 pm

    I had no idea this was originally a book. The film is a classic, well worth catching. It’s sufficiently well done that I wonder if I could now read the book, or if I’d instead just be reading the film with its interpretation swamping the page.

    Count me as an other big city type. I find small towns claustrophobic. As you bring out, annoy the pool hall owner and that’s basically your social life out of the window. Not ideal.

    Like

    • May 20, 2014 at 10:23 pm

      I’d like to watch the film too. I’d be curious to have your opinion on the book.

      I can’t help it, villages make me think of St Mary Mead and frankly, I never wanted to live in a place like that.

      Like

      • May 21, 2014 at 7:30 pm

        Some folk aren’t built for the big city, and some of us aren’t built for anywhere else.

        I had to google St Mary Mead, I’d forgotten it. Quite, I agree.

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        • May 21, 2014 at 9:41 pm

          Sorry for St Mary Mead, I thought you’d know. English whodunnit crime fiction has a knack for gossiping villages.

          Like

  1. November 13, 2014 at 12:02 am

I love to hear your thoughts, thanks for commenting. Comments in French are welcome

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