McMurtry: Nihilism and Jack Rabbit Sex
I became aware of the world at large in the 1950s, but in a very different place than author Larry McMurtry. He grew up in a small Texas town among cattle ranches and oil wells while I came of age in a factory town in Michigan. Even so, McMurtry and I emerged out of the 50s with many similarities in outlook.
The 50s were a strange time in America. Rampant conformity was a guiding principle in the hinterlands. Sex was something respectable people did behind locked doors in the dark, sometimes with their shoes on. The Cold War and the McCarthy witch hunt generated a pervasive sense of fear and despair among Americans who had recently won the bloodiest war in history and wanted a better future. Idealism took a back seat to hypocrisy.
McMurtry set two coming-of-age novels about this era in Texas, but they are really the same autobiographical story. "Horseman, Pass By (later made into the film "Hud") and "The Last Picture Show" have common themes: nihilism, jack rabbit sex and a young man's search for decency and meaning.
I think "The Last Picture Show" is the best novel McMurtry ever wrote. It is a quintessential American tale -- the twisted "Huckleberry Finn" of its day. The film Peter Bogdanovich made from the book is also a masterpiece that has haunted me ever since I saw it the first time 35 years ago. It's the kind of movie that will get under your skin and stay there. It was shot without color because black-and-white lends an appropriate gritty realism to the story.
In some ways the film is even better than the novel because Bogdanovich had so much talent to work with in the ensemble cast. Veteran actor Ben Johnson gives the best performance of his career as rustic philosopher Sam the Lion. Cybil Shepard makes her film debut as Jacy, the prettiest girl in the fictional town of Anarene. Ellen Burstyn plays her wild wisecracking mother. A very young Jeff Bridges shines as Duane, the hot-head obsessed with Jacy. Chloris Leachman won an Academy Award as the love-starved football coach's wife. And Timothy Bottoms is Sonny, the young protagonist trying to make sense of the bizarreness of life in the Texas wasteland.
The film opens the day after the high school football team lost their last game by a score of 121-14. The team hasn't won a game all season -- a symptom of the sorry state of things in desolate Anarene, a one-street town with a movie theater, a pool hall and a restaurant, all owned by Sam the Lion. Anarene looks like the American Dream limping to an everlasting death.
The young men of Anarene grab sex wherever they can find it, some with the fat town whore, others with heiffers in acts of bestiality. One night the boys chip in to get the young town simpleton laid by the whore. She bloodies his nose because he doesn't know what to do. When Sam the Lion finds out what happened, he bans the boys from the town's only three businesses.
"I've been puttin' up with trashy behavior all my life and I'm tired of it," he lectures them. "I don't want your business anymore. You didn't even have the decency to wash his face."
Sonny has a high school girlfriend he doesn't like much. He breaks up with her after she accuses him of getting fresh. With Sam mad at him and no girlfriend, Sonny begins an affair with the middle-aged coach's wife, who weeps happily when they make love.
Meanwhile, Jacy wants to lose her virginity, but Duane can't function on the first try in a motel. This failure humiliates Duane and makes him more determined than ever to marry Jacy and remove any doubts about his manhood.
Jacy's mother is 40, which she describes as "an itchy age" to justify her many forays into adultery. She doesn't like Duane and thinks her daughter lacks the spirit of adventure. "Didn't you ever want do somethin' right now?" she asks Jacy.
She tries to discourage her daughter from marrying Duane. "Anything you do often enough gets boring. If you want a lesson in monotony, then go ahead and marry Duane."
Jacy heeds her mother's advice and begins looking for a man elsewhere. She even tries one of her mother's lovers, who treats her like dirt when the sex is over. She rebounds with a rich young man she meets at a nude swimming pool party, but her luck with men remains bad. He marries another girl.
Eventually, Sam the Lion forgives Sonny and lets him eat in his restaurant. He takes Sonny fishing one day at a water reservoir where he used to bring a young woman after his sons died and his wife went crazy.
"Loving a wild young woman like that is always right," he muses. "What's ridiculous is being a decrepit bag of bones, gettin' old."
Smarting from Jacy's rejection, Duane talks Sonny into driving to Mexico to party. They stop to tell Sam the Lion and invite him to come along. Sam wants to go, but decides not to at the last second and gives them extra money and advice instead. When they return from Mexico a few days later, they learn that Sam the Lion died of a stroke while they were gone.
In his will Sam leaves the pool hall to Sonny and the restaurant to his waitress, but the theater will close for good. Sonny realizes the town will never be the same without Sam the Lion and discovers the nickname was given to him by Jacy's mother when she was the young woman Sam used to bring to the water reservoir to make love.
Bored, Jacy seduces Sonny away from the coach's wife. Duane returns to Anarene from an oil well job and confonts Sonny about dating the woman he intends to marry. They get into a fight and Duane smashes a beer bottle against Sonny's head, cutting his eye, then rushes off to join the Army.
Jacy is thrilled by the town gossip of two men fighting over her and she persuades Sonny to get married in Oklahoma. But she leaves a note to her parents about where they are going, certain her father will act quickly to have the marriage annulled before it is consummated.
Duane comes home from boot camp on his way to the Korean war. He admits to Sonny he is still not over Jacy. Sonny mentions that Jacy went to college in Dallas and lost touch with him. Duane gives Sonny his car before he boards a bus back to the Army post. "I'll see you in a year or two if I don't get shot in Korea," he says with a laugh.
From the pool hall one morning Sonny hears tires screech. He goes outside, looks down the street and sees a cattle truck stopped. Then he notices a broom laying on the pavement and runs to a crowd at the front of the truck. The mute simpleton has been run over and killed. Sonny carries the body back to the pool hall and lays the boy on the steps, covering him with his own coat.
On a lonely country road outside of town Sonny accelerates his old pickup truck as fast as it will go. The flat empty landscape rushes by and Sonny is lost in fixed stare. He has let down Sam the Lion again. He was supposed to take care of the mute boy after Sam was gone. He is thinking about suicide. At last Sonny slows down and turns the truck around, realizing where he wants to go.
The coach's wife opens the house door still wearing her robe, too depressed to get dressed as she has been for the past three months. She looks startled to see Sonny on her doorstep. He asks if he can have a cup of coffee and she invites him inside mechanically. She has heard about the mute boy being killed and she knows Sonny wants her to comfort him.
In the kitchen the coach's wife explodes in anger, smashing the coffee pot against the wall and shouting that Sonny abandoned the mute boy just like he abandoned her. Sonny stares at her with doleful eyes and doesn't say a word. She calms down and tries to explain how much he hurt her, that he can't expect her feelings for him to return simply because he needs her now -- but she stops in mid-sentence when she observes the pathetic look on his face.
"Never you mind," she coos at him. "Never you mind."
The final shot pans down the main street to the closed theater as dust and leaves swirl in the blustery wind. The end is chilling, like Anarene's lack of a future.
(Note: McMurtry knows about nihilism and depression. At the height of his popularity as a novelist, he spent two years in bed eating, gaining weight and watching movies on video. He snapped out of it eventually and resumed writing.)
"The earth was made round so we can't see too far down the road and know what is coming." -- Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa