Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Strongly identified with his native state, McMurtry is among the most eminent regional novelists of his generation, with a considerable nationwide audience and following. Curiously, however, he is perhaps better known for the films adapted from certain of his novels than for the novels themselves: Horseman, Pass By (1961) was later filmed as Hud (1963), Leaving Cheyenne (1963) as Lovin’ Molly (1974). The Last Picture Show was the second of his novels to be filmed; Terms of Endearment would follow in 1983. McMurtry, himself a student and critic of the cinema, can hardly be displeased with the trend, although his novels are generally deserving of more critical attention than they have received.

McMurtry’s first two novels, Horseman, Pass By and Leaving Cheyenne, featured a rural setting with strong ties to the Old West. With The Last Picture Show, McMurtry turned his attention to small-town life, proceeding thereafter to examine such cities as Houston in Moving On, All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers, and Terms of Endearment. Those three loosely connected novels, generally grouped together as McMurtry’s “urban trilogy,” demonstrated the author’s increasing skill at social satire, at times approaching the novel of manners. Featuring generally the same cast of recurring or overlapping characters, the “urban trilogy” established McMurtry as the creator and prime practitioner of the urban Western, which stresses the effects of technological and social change as rural Westerners, uprooted from the land, drift toward the cities in search of a better life.

After the “urban trilogy,” McMurtry carried his penchant for social satire outward from Texas into such locales as Hollywood (Somebody’s Darling, 1978), Washington, D.C. (Cadillac Jack), and Las Vegas (The Desert Rose, 1983). With Lonesome Dove (1985), McMurtry returned his attention to Texas and to the Old West, telling the epic tale of a cattle drive across the prairie in the late 1870’s. The Last Picture Show may thus be seen as a transitional work in McMurtry’s varied literary canon, announcing his considerable talent for social satire while retaining the strong rural consciousness of his two earlier novels. Notable for its strong sense of time and place and for occasional flashes of black humor recalling the writings of the Beat Generation, The Last Picture Show, despite occasional flaws in viewpoint and narration, remains worthy of consideration among McMurtry’s greater accomplishments.