Book review

The Last Picture Show (Larry McMurtry)

A good read. There is something about McMurtry’s style that is immensely compelling, keeping you turning the pages and caring about the characters and wondering what’s going to happen next. An evocative and absorbing book, too. One night while reading it before bed, I dreamed about it, its characters and setting. The book catches you up and makes you live in its world, and that’s good writing.

The town of Thalia, Texas, is certainly a miserable one. And the characters trapped in it are certainly miserable too. Limited and confined and almost entirely beaten down, weathered by the wind and the dust and the cold and the heat. McMurtry has created believable and interesting characters, people you have visceral reactions to, like in a good melodrama:  you boo the villain and cheer on the hero and bemoan the limited heroine. His more complicated adult characters, the ones who’ve grown up in Thalia and for one reason or another can’t leave it, are interesting studies in human weakness: the inability or unwillingness to change, to move, to grow. What a waste. I guess that’s Thalia’s message, and the point of the book.

McMurtry’s sympathy for his characters is palpable. His is an excellent narrative voice: he stands slightly away from the story, letting the yarn unfurl more or less on his own. He injects very little, if any, editorial presence beyond occasional slightly ironic stylings like “It occurred to him” and “She was pretty sure.” Other than that, he goes completely into the head of whatever character is the focal point of the action and moves effortlessly between and among them. When he is not in a character’s mind, he objectively narrates the action: “When he came in Duane was standing by the coatroom, obviously furious.” The first clause of the sentence is objective; in the second, he has seamlessly entered Sonny’s head. This character-driven narration is, I think, what makes the book so compelling.

As an editor, I was struck by the lack of commas. McMurtry uses very few commas, relatively speaking. In the sentence I quoted before, for example, there is no comma after “in,” although one is grammatically correct and arguably necessary. But this lack of punctuation contributes to the narrative flow, to its urgency, and is also true to the unlettered voice of Thalia’s residents. These people don’t think — or live — in grandiloquent clauses piled decoratively one on the other. They are flat and uninflected, and they speak and think in a flat and uninflected manner. The device is not so pervasive that it calls attention to itself, and there were only one or two sentences that I stumbled over, not quite sure how to parse. Smart writing, very smart.

I don’t know that the book stuck with me particularly. I find I can recapture my interest in it by leafing through it now as I write this. But not much of the plot or its conflicts really stayed with me, other than a sense of dry and cold and dust. My interest in the characters more or less ended when I turned the final page, and I don’t think I came to any profound realizations about life — theirs or mine. But that’s okay. I was immersed in the life and language of the book while I was there, and that’s more than happens with most books.

1 thought on “The Last Picture Show (Larry McMurtry)”

  1. Hi Nita,
    Love your writing. I remember this movie as one of the first kind of semi-racy (for the time) that I was allowed to see. I thought Cybill Sheppard was amazing, as was Jeff Bridges and Timothy Buttons, both of talented acting clans. Ellen Burstyn was in it, too, and Randy Quaid. I think I was 12 or 13 when it came out. Anyway, thanks for the review–now I need to read the book! Jen

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