Larry McMurtry’s Enduring Brilliant Twist in ‘The Last Picture Show’ : The Small Town Lives
One of my first newspaper jobs, in the early 1970s, was editing copy on the night desk at the Daily Record in the small municipality of Morristown, New Jersey.
My shift ended around 3 a.m., at which time I would walk the half mile home to my apartment.
It was a pleasant walk, lit by the moon and a few street lamps and interrupted only by the occasional car tending, as was I, to the business of the night.
At the corner of Coal Avenue I passed an old wooden house with a sign that said “Ice.” I didn’t know the man who owned it, but I found it intriguing that this would remain a commercially viable commodity some years after most folks had traded in their ice boxes for refrigerators.
After I suggested one of our local columnists interview the iceman, she reported that he had politely declined. So his story was left to my imagination, and one notion that passed through my mind on those silent nights was whether an iceman might remain in business longer in a small place like Morristown.
Coal Avenue, as the name suggests, wasn’t the fanciest address. But it was part of the town, walking distance from everything you needed. I imagined that over many years the iceman had come to feel this was his town and to know his people. As long as someone wanted ice, there was no reason not to keep selling it.
I have no punchline here. Some years ago the sign came down, followed by the house. The iceman is gone, the lot is empty and I doubt anyone in Morristown still has an ice box.
But I thought about this again last week after the death of the writer Larry McMurtry, because I’m not sure any writer has painted the small town as indelibly as McMurtry painted it in his novel-turned-movie The Last Picture Show.
McMurtry wrote the books that became the unending television miniseries Lonesome Dove. His novel Horseman, Pass By became the movie Hud. His writings became Terms of Endearment and Brokeback Mountain.
To me, his signature is still The Last Picture Show.
McMurtry wrote The Last Picture Show as an embellished memoir of growing up in the early 1950s in the small town of Archer City, Texas, renamed Thalia for the book and Anarene for the movie.
He builds the story around two high school buddies, Duane Jackson (played in the movie by Jeff Bridges) and Sonny Crawford (Timothy Bottoms). They share a thing for the prettiest girl in town, Jacy Farrow (Cybill Shepherd).
That triangle, augmented by the dramas of a half dozen other major characters, accounts for The Last Picture Show most often being described as a coming-of-age story, a tale of teenage insecurity, longing, anxiety, cruelty, awakening and so on.
It’s all that. I saw it more as the tale of a small town and the forces that shape anyone growing up there.
McMurtry’s Thalia/Anarene, outwardly, is a bleak place. “Not much is happening,” read one of the promo lines for the movie, and the lack of possibility presses on the characters like the Texas summer heat.
The high school kids here don’t want more than high school kids anywhere else. Trouble is, they sense that they’re getting less. They enjoy the Friday Night Lights football game the same as every other kid in Texas, and they celebrate afterwards with the same illegal beverages. But when they graduate from high school and want what’s next, they either settle for a limited number of mundane jobs and too-familiar faces or they leave.
Duane heads for the exit, joining the Army to fight in the Korean War. Jacy just wants to go somewhere, meet new people, find more life. Sonny seems inclined to stay and make the most of what there is.
McMurtry telescoped more high drama into Thalia/Anarene than most small town residents would experience. That’s what writers do, and in this case it framed the restless frustrations of the characters as the core question of small-town America.
Probably of small towns all over the world.
Through one lens, small towns are a glistening haven, a refuge of moral purity and reassuring human concern. People know and help their neighbors. They don’t lock their cars or their doors. They live by the Golden Rule and a code of honest decency.
Where the big city is cold and impersonal, the little town on the prairie is the setting of a Hallmark movie, where people return to rediscover the old values and what’s really important in life.
A 2018 Gallup poll found that 27% of Americans, given their choice, said they would live in a rural community, which roughly equates to “small town.” At the same time, only 15% of respondents said that’s where they do live — not because they’ve been kidnapped and held at gunpoint in Chicago, but because, like the characters in The Last Picture Show, they see the Chicagos as places where there are more jobs, more things to do. There’s just more.
The things that used to keep young folks in small-town homes, like working the family farm or automatically marrying the boy next door whom you dated since junior high, have less of a hold in an age when anyone with a phone can see a wider range of possibilities.
Yet that Gallup poll also underscores the danger of drawing too many hard generalities about Americans’ fantasy life. Gallup gives respondents the choice of six locations — rural, big city, big city suburb, small city, small city suburb, town — and while the rural area’s 27% leads the pack, every option scores double digits. It’s a split verdict.
Furthermore, and this is a critical point, many people who live in cities identify less with the city itself than their relatively small neighborhood within the city, from Bushwick in Brooklyn to Compton in L.A.
Further potential complication. Now that millions of office jobs have gone remote, many of them permanently, does that liberate those workers from small, expensive big-city apartments? If so, where will they go?
However that shakes out, and however many Jacys still can’t wait to break free from a town too small to have its own Starbucks, it’s clear that small towns aren’t folding their tents.
After the movie theater closes and seals the title metaphor in The Last Picture Show, people still live there, still work there, still send their kids to school, still mingle amongst themselves. However unhappy the characters may seem, most of them are still kicking around town a couple of decades later in McMurtry’s sequel, Texasville,
In the wider picture, this whole small-town debate played a central role in shaping American government. Those famous Founding Fathers created a Senate with two senators from each state, regardless of size, so the big places couldn’t trample the little places. Call it protectionist government, because the Founding Fathers considered small towns, literal or figurative, vital to the success of the country they were founding.
As The Last Picture Show makes clear, small towns have their problems. So do big cities. They’re both, after all, populated by people. But if small towns in some ways have the tougher fight, they’ve hung on.
Like the iceman.