Larry McMurtry trilogy

This is a Page Turners from the Past Three-Fer! The reading of Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show led to his Texasville and then to the last of what the literati call a trilogy—Duane’s Depressed!

The Last Picture Show book cover

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The Last Picture Show
Simon & Schuster (1966)

If you like coming of age novels and haven’t read the novel or seen the film, then start right at the beginning and read The Last Picture Show. It’s set in the 1950s in Thalia, a butt ugly little Texas oil town where frankly there isn’t much going on. Oil rigs work the dusty prairie, young high schoolers—co-protagonists Duane and Sonny, best friends—shoot pool, drink beer and play on the football team. They sleep in class and stir long enough for both of them to fall in love with Jacy Farrow, the prom queen. And all of this plays around Thalia’s “cultural centers,” an old movie hall where the population watches classics from the 50’s—kids make out in the balcony, the elders enjoy Ronald Reagan and Grace Kelly. And then there’s the pool hall.  Owned by a solid citizen named The Lion, it is where Thalia’s male population gathers to chew, spit, drink, talk sex, shoot a lotta bull and a little pool.

The novel is funny sad, and sexy. In Thalia, sex trumps football as the town’s favorite sport with the citizens playing out their “attractions” with little or no feelings.

Of course, there are small town characters galore. Joe Bob, a mentally challenged kid who works at the pool hall, has a sweeping fetish and goes nowhere without swishing his broom. Again, Duane dates Jacy, town beauty, sex tease and local beauty.  Sonny is in the wings hoping to catch her on the rebound but knows he’s second to his best friend Duane. This leads to trouble. And then there’s a despicable Neanderthal of a football coach whose lonely middle age wife finds solace in the arms of the aforementioned Sonny, one of his high school football players.

Perhaps the most grounded or at least earthy character in the novel is Jacy’s mother, Lois Farrow, oil money rich, and equipped with an “I don’t give a damn” attitude. Lois sees Thalia and life there among the dust, dirt and oil wells for what it is—something to live, “love” and spend through. Lois just deals with it.

Here’s a bit of a phone conversation between Lois who at the time is having a lightweight affair with a pool shooting, wild cat oil man named Abilene

Lois: Abilene, you asleep?

Abilene: No.

Lois Farrow: You like company?

Abilene: Well, I thought I’d drive out, see how my well was coming.

Lois Farrow: Drill hard. You’re better at oil wells anyway.

Things—the characters, the plot, the story—as in many novels set in small towns sort themselves out in the end. But what may sound like a rather dry well isn’t when it’s McMurtry drilling. No one writes Texas like Larry McMurtry and although the theater closes he leaves the projector running, keeping us in our seats for a second and third show—Texasville and Duane’s Depressed!

Texasville book cover

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Simon & Schuster (1987)

Welcome to the Thalia that we thought we knew, the one from McMurtry’s novel The Last Picture Show. In Texasville, the 1950s are long since gone, it’s the 80s now and the populace has either grown old or (at least in a sense) grown up and they’re busy rebounding from the post-oil boom, one that made McMurtry’s characters rich then crashed and made them poor, which by the way, has had little impact on their lifestyles.

Oil prices plummeting headed toward $5 a barrel and they’re still living large, dodging bank calls, getting through their mundane lives by spending, having sex with anyone who moves, and frankly living like cartoon characters who think they can jump off a cliff like Wile E. Coyote and live to tell the tale.

Duane is a once-upon-a-time oil millionaire with a twelve-million-dollar debt, a hot tub by his mansion’s pool, and a dog named Shorty who Duane loves more (little wonder) than his horrific children and grandchildren. Then there’s Karla, an off-the-charts beauty of a wife with a Get It Where and When You Can sex life.  She sleeps with the contractor/architect that remodeled their kitchen and the only thing that pisses Duane off is that she wasn’t sleeping with someone who knew how to install a garbage disposal that works. Karla has a mouth that would make an oil man blush and she puts this talent to use on a regular basis. Oh, and she parades around wearing her thoughts on T-shirts.  ”INSANITY IS THE BEST REVENGE,” ”I’M NOT DEAF I’M JUST IGNORING YOU” and PTFTP’s personal favorite, ”LEAD ME NOT INTO TEMPTATION, I’LL FIND IT FOR MYSELF.”

Duane: “It must be ten years since you’ve worn anything I didn’t have to read.”

Karla: “You ought to leave me alone on days like this. I can’t even get drunk. The faster I drink the faster things happen to sober me up!”

Many of McMurtry’s characters from The Last Picture Show are back. Jacy, who’s lost a child, has tired of playing roles like “Jungla” in Italian movies and has returned home to Thalia.  Sonny, who lost Jacy to Duane when they were high school kids, is there fighting personality disorders while owning the only businesses that might survive the oil bust—the car wash, the video story and the Kwik-Sack.

Duane is fighting off bank calls, dealing with that pack of kids and grandkids of his. His oldest son Jackie (Duane is sharing a married lover with Jackie) is a drug addict and pusher. Duane and Karla’s daughters are idiots who marry and remarry on a monthly basis. And the pre-teen twins, who were (“. . . back when they were doing it”) a Duane and Karla bedroom mistake, are the most horrific urchins in the state of Texas.

Minerva, an elderly black woman, whose daily self-diagnoses discover a new form of cancer that will surely kill her, runs this sideshow. She cooks for Duane, Karla and the litter they managed to produce, all the while taking more than a reasonable amount of break time to watch porn on Duane’s satellite dish (which, by the way, has replaced Thalia’s need for that old move theater).

Karla may “run around” but Duane isn’t without fault. He can’t seem to have sex with his wife but hooks up with numerous other willing Thalia women—all the while tiptoeing around his lifelong crush on Stacy. When depressed he sits in his hot tub and fires his pistol at a two-story doghouse.

Spoiler alert! This one ends with a Thalia Centennial Celebration to end all celebrations, one “balanced” with laughs and clichés. The town meetings and the planning of the 100th are a hoot with points debated—a rightwing minister insists if free beer is offered, the town’s council will rot in Hell. The town council spends hours developing acts that include moments from history that took place when Texas was nothing but dirt and dust. Entire meetings are devoted to the decisions like who will play George Washington crossing the Potomac and who will fig-leaf up as Adam and Eve.  Well, the old prom king and queen, Jacy and Duane, of course.

McMurty’s characters blow in and out and around (they are all over the place) like dust in a hot Thalia, Texas, wind.  No knock here, but this one is so zany that it reads more like the film script for Mad, Mad World than a novel.

And when the population and story finally settles, it somehow manages to be fertile ground for the third novel of the trilogy—Duane’s Depressed.  My God! Read Texasville, experience the characters and the lives of the folks from Thalia, and you’ll know why he’s depressed.  Book three, McMurtry’s last visit to Thalia, will tell you what Duane does about it.

Duane's Depressed book cover

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Duane’s Depressed
Simon & Schuster (1999)

Here, if not broken, Duane is clearly a broke man. Having lost his oil fortune, he and Thalia, where he’s spent a lifetime, are in disarray. The little town has lived through the boom and bust, the burg is in a shambles, and Duane is tired of being the guy who is always called on (family, employees, town folk) to fix it. People just aren’t acting right and it’s been going on so long that most of them don’t even know it.

In Duane’s Depressed, a number of the characters from the aforementioned novels are still in residence. Sonny Crawford is used goods and barely hanging on physically and emotionally. Ruth Popper (the football coach’s wife who Sonny slept with) a widow now is alive; a jogging health nut who as a secretary ensures that Duane’s oil business remains above ground. She keeps his books while serving as a self-appointed life coach for her boss. Bobby Lee has lost a testicle to cancer and this tragedy becomes his life’s focus and a running joke throughout the novel. Karla, Duane’s wild-woman wife, is dedicating her time (when not shopping, rounding up crazy offspring and grandkids) to the thought that Duane wants a divorce and has come to the logical conclusion that if he can’t get it up for her he must be depressed.

Duane is sixty-two and reinforces his wife’s prognosis by suddenly throwing away the keys to his pickup truck and walking wherever he goes. Duane pooh-poohs the depression idea, saying that he’s just tired of riding around in a pickup truck. Leaving the madness of his life behind, he just calmly strolls out of his McMansion one day with his dog Shorty at his side. And off they go to an old hunting cabin where Duane and Shorty set up housekeeping with little more than a cot and a hotplate. Here he will clear his mind and take a good look back at a “failed” life, a family and a town that have frankly driven him to the brink.

This sorting it all out is what turns the pages of McMurtry’s final novel of the trilogy There’s a lot of crazy behavior here. Enough to make a man like Duane seek help by walking miles to the office of a woman shrink named Honor. She turns him on, turns out to be a lesbian and turns him to reading. In Thoreau’s Proust  he discovers a kindred spirit. Like Thoreau he will live the rest of his life one well thought out step at a time.

All this said, McMurtry does tidy up this confused life of Duane’s with some character elimination that we didn’t see coming—“deleting” characters that make it a bit easier for Duane’s life to come to a logical conclusion.

The fact that in the end he literally goes off on a new journey—to see the Pyramids—makes for a fitting conclusion for a rather mundane life , one that only an author of McMurty’s skills could make sad, funny, almost believable, and compelling reading.

So applause for the trilogy here. But at times The Last Picture Show, Texasville and Duane’s Depressed made Page Turners from the Past, lonesome—longing for the first time we read Lonesome Dove, McMurtry’s brilliant Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece. So give the trilogy a read but then hie off to the library and check out Lonesome Dove. You’ll probably read that one at least three times.