McMurtry: Nilhilism and Jack Rabbit Sex
William Starr Moake
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
a wild young woman like that is always right,"
he muses. "What's ridiculous is being
a decrepit bag of bones, gettin' old."
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
you mind," she coos at him. "Never
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.
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
Nilhilism and Jack Rabbit Sex
© 2006 by William Starr Moake