The Last Picture Show ought to be one of the most boring novels ever written: It’s about a handful of losers in a nowhere town who don’t do very much. Stated like that you wouldn’t want to read it. But the delivery makes it work and that delivery can’t be easily excerpted.
The Last Picture Show feels humane; I can’t exactly define that term in this context and I can’t point to a single sentence that encompasses it, but the feel permeates the novel. When people talk about politically correct art, they are talking about the opposite of The Last Picture Show, which is never doctrinaire yet often honest about its characters their foibles. Maybe the best is Lois, Jacy’s mom, who is scary and desiring and wants everyone around her to fuck off and wants to be gone but never quite can be.
Part of being humane entails familiarity with brutality, desperation, and annihilation—all of which appear, in various guises, as when Ruth Popper finds that a teenage boy has become everything to her: he “was what made the days worth confronting” (the word “confronting” being a better one here than “living”) and “the thought of going back to the existence she had had before he came was too much to face.” Yet on some level she must face it: he’s a high school senior and she’s married to his former football coach. Their relationship is by its nature has a terminus, but fighting the terminal nature is part of what makes the novel work—and part of the nature of its melancholy, melancholy being a feeling that is rarely if ever named yet one that pervades the whole thing. It isn’t melancholy the way someone like Houellebecq is, but all the characters yearn to be somewhere else.
The Last Picture Show world is very different from today; we learn that Sonny played football for four years at the local high school, but the football coach is “a man of most uncertain temper. He had already shot at Sonny once in his life, and with a new under-over he might not miss.” It’s hard to get the tone of this sentence in the context of the novel. Is it supposed to be farcically funny? Reported straight? A sign of the town and the boy’s resignation? Something else? I don’t know and not knowing is part of what makes it good.
Sometimes, but not too often, the sentences hit classic beautiful metaphors:
after an hour’s slopping necking with Charlene even the fantasy that he was kissing Jacy had a dangerous power. Charlene kissed convulsively, as if she had just swallowed a golf ball and was trying to force it back up.
If that is Charlene to Sonny, we know everything about their relationship.
Or, not in metaphor form:
“But I don’t care about money,” Jacy said solemnly. “I don’t care about it at all.”
Lois sighed. “You’re pretty stupid then,” she said. “If you’re that stupid you ought to go and marry him—it would be the cheapest way to educate you.”
Jacy was so shocked at being called stupid that she didn’t even cry. Her mother knew she made straight-A report cards!
And report cards are of course the surest, most steady sign of intellect devised by man.
The first sentence is, “Sometimes Sonny felt like he was the only human creature in the town.” “Human creature?” What and where is “the town?” “Lonely,” “lonesome” and similar words about the lack of human contact and camaraderie are the most-used in the novel. There is of course no social media, but even if there were it probably wouldn’t help much. The town is too far from the big city. For Sonny and Duane, the military may be a way out. For many others, there is no obvious out.
I love this book because I don’t get it, and it should be bad, but it isn’t.