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A Lovely, Poignant Novel
on June 14, 2017
Small, dying towns have a way of scraping along far past what it seems like their expiration dates should be, a stubborn romanticism cementing their residents in place. Like Thalia, the fictional Texas town where Larry McMurtry sets The Last Picture Show. Oil keeps Thalia together, provides roughnecking jobs for the local working class boys, and keeps the town's wealthiest family, the Farrows, in their relatively cushioned niche. Gene and Lois Farrow's spoiled, beautiful teenage daughter Jacy is the apple of every boy's eye and when the story starts, she's chosen her blue-collar classmate Duane as her boyfriend. She doesn't really have especially strong feelings for Duane, but she likes that he's in the backfield on the football team and that he adores her and buys her things. That he's poor enough to piss off her parents is icing on the cake.
But the book isn't really about Duane. It's sort of about Jacy, but it's really about Sonny, Duane's best friend, and their senior year in high school. Sonny is just kind of drifting along without much direction, being mediocre at sports and crushing on his best friend's girl, until he finds himself in an affair with Ruth, the football coach's neglected wife. He's thrilled to be getting laid regularly and fond of Ruth, but their affair triggers something deeper for her. Stuck in a bad marriage she made to rebel against her parents, she feels seen and desired for the first time in her adult life, giving her back some of her dampened inner fire but also making her heart-wrenchingly dependent on the attention of a teenage boy. And when Jacy sets her sights on Sonny, well...heartbreak is in order.
One of the things that struck me particularly about this novel was the lack of romance in the way that McMurtry dealt with sex. The experience of sex for the characters ranges from the purely transactional (both Sonny and Duane sleep with hookers) to the deeply meaningful (the way that Ruth views her assignations with Sonny). It felt more honest than either treating it consistently as either a purely physical exercise or A Mystical Union Of Two Souls. There's even a range of feeling about sex within the characters themselves: for example, Jacy sleeps with the besotted Duane as a means to an end of losing her virginity to be more attractive to another man and coolly leaves him shortly thereafter, but she's genuinely hurt when she has sex with the local pool hustler because she feels real desire for the first time in her life and it turns out she's just a a way he's acting out towards his own lover. It hits on the way that sex actually works in real life, with a wide spectrum of meaning depending on the content, and it's just part of why the novel rings so true and so real.
Sonny's not a bad guy, despite his sometimes cavalier treatment of Ruth's feelings. He's just young and is still feeling his way into becoming an adult. Which is pretty much everyone's situation, including the adults themselves...it's the rare coming-of-age story that doesn't neglect the older generation. The idea that we're all just trying to figure out how to be a grown-up is what gives the novel its power. I loved this book and the way it took you inside the character's heads (mostly Sonny, Jacy, and Ruth, but a few others) and let you see situations and other characters from different perspectives. It creates a sense of people, not just characters, on the page. It felt like a tour of loneliness, in a way: everyone in the story is lonely and trying to deal with that loneliness in their own way. Everyone's grasping at something they think will help that seems tantalizingly just out of reach. Which isn't just small-town life, to be certain, but cities seem to have more to offer to distract from that emptiness. The people of Thalia, though, just have their aching hearts. It's not a long book, but I found it so compelling that I blasted right through it. Simple but vivid prose and emotionally honest characters made it hard to put down.