Late at night, Lonnie Bannon of Horseman, Pass By would sit on top of his windmill and gaze off at the lights of Thalia, the small town that McMurtry describes in his third book, The Last Picture Show. There are more people in Thalia than on Lonnie’s ranch, but they are equally lonely. People in Thalia in the early 1950’s are caught between the dying countryside and the frightening pull of such booming cities as Dallas and Houston. Many people in Thalia had moved in from surrounding ranches (as the McMurtrys had moved to Archer City). Feeling under siege by the strange ways of the steadily encroaching urban United States, they impose their old ways on the town and try to crush any signs of nonconformity.
The story focuses on Sonny Crawford and his friend Duane Moore. It opens as the boys finish their last high school football game and continues over the following year as they search for a new path for themselves. Sam the Lion, once a rancher, now owns the town’s movie theater, pool hall, and café. He acts as a father-surrogate for Sonny and Duane, and for other boys in need, including Billy, the mentally retarded boy that Sam took in and reared. Billy sweeps out Sam’s businesses. If someone does not stop him, he sweeps to the edge of town and on into the empty countryside, as mindlessly occupied as the rest of the townspeople are as they go about their lives.
Duane dates the town beauty, Jacy Farrow, the daughter of oil-rich Lois and Gene Farrow. Jacy is a narcissistic, selfish young woman whose sense of self depends on the admiration and envy of others. She dates Duane only because he is a handsome high school athlete.
The story focuses mainly on Sonny, an innocent young man much like Lonnie Bannon. During this year, Sonny is initiated into manhood through a sexual relationship with Ruth Popper and through the death of Sam the Lion. Ruth Popper is an attractive woman who has had nearly all the life drained from her when she and Sonny begin an affair. She is the wife of football coach Herman Popper. Herman values a good shotgun more than he does a woman; Ruth tells Sonny, “The reason I’m so crazy is because nobody cares anything about me.” Her affair with Sonny makes her see that she is not crazy and that she is an attractive woman.
Lois Farrow, Jacy’s mother, is another strong woman who defies the mores of Thalia. The beautiful, rich Lois realizes a hard truth that many oil-rich Texans confront: Having money does not fill life’s emptiness. She fights off crushing boredom by drinking, having sex, and spending money. She also enjoys frightening men who cannot cope with assertive women. Both Ruth and Lois are examples of McMurtry characters whose capacities do not fit their situations.
Sonny matures enough to refuse to join the boys in their sexual escapades with heifers but not so much that the future becomes clearer to him. Nor does he mature enough to resist Jacy when she seduces him away from Ruth Popper. Duane, who had been away working in the oil fields, returns, fights with Sonny, and blinds him in one eye. Duane leaves for the Army. Jacy elopes with Sonny in order to be the center of attention. She knows that the Farrows will annul the marriage, which they do, and send her off to college before she wrecks the town.
The outside world intrudes into Thalia in various ways. It pulls Duane and Jacy away. Television provides too much competition for the picture show, and it closes. The closing of the movie theater is yet another disappointment for Sonny, following his loss of Sam the Lion, Jacy, Duane, and Ruth Popper. His final loss comes when Billy, blindly sweeping the street, is hit by a truck and killed. Later that day, Sonny tries to leave Thalia. He goes to the city limits and looks at the empty countryside: “He himself felt too empty. As empty as he felt and as empty as the country looked it was too risky going out into it.” He looks back at Thalia: “From the road the town looked raw, scraped by the...
(The entire section is 1,686 words.)