Thalia Novels of Larry McMurtry

Thalia, Texas is a fictional town, the setting for five novels by Larry McMurtry:

  • The Last Picture Show (1966)
  • Texasville (1987)
  • Duane’s Depressed (1999)
  • When the Light Goes (2007)
  • Rhino Ranch (2009)

I read all five of these books in the last six weeks, and the threads that weave them together are Thalia and Duane Moore, so it’s essentially the story of one man and his small town over fifty years since he graduated high school.  (My guess in 1952.)

I first read The Last Picture Show after seeing the movie when it came out in 1971 and this led me to be a life-long Larry McMurtry fan, but not a consistent one.  I read a handful of his early books during 1971-1975, then after seeing the Lonesome Dove mini-series on TV read most of McMurtry western novels in the late 80s and early 90s, then in the early double-ought’s, I read the Berrybender books, and final this summer I came back and caught up with the Thalia novels.

The Thalia novels are my favorites because I find so much that resonates with my own life.

The original story in this unintentional series, The Last Picture Show, was “lovingly dedicated to my home town,” by McMurtry, who was born in Archer City, Texas. I assume that’s the model for Thalia.  Thalia, from Greek mythology, was the Muse of comedy, and one of the three Graces.  Some people do see these stories as essentially comic, but any comedy is vastly overshadowed by loneliness, sexual frustration, sadness, restless boredom, depression and death.

I’d like to think The Last Picture Show is autobiographical, the kind of a novel that a young writer would write to describe how they grew up.  It’s about two high school best friends, Sonny Crawford and Duane Moore set in the early 1950s, during the Korean War.  It was made into a beautiful film by Peter Bogdanovich in 1971, starring Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybil Shepherd.  The Last Picture Show is Sonny Crawford’s story, but Duane and Sonny share a tragic love for the fickle Jacy Farrow.  The odd thing about this novel is how the women are much stronger then the Texas men.

For some reason, starting with Texasville, the story shifted to Duane, and Sonny was marginalized as a character.  Because Texasville was also made into a film in 1990, again by Bogdanovich, I wonder if McMurtry wrote it for the Duane because Jeff Bridges was then a much bigger star.  All the books after The Last Picture Show focus on Duane Moore, and it’s Jeff Bridges who I picture in my mind as Duane for all five books.

Over the five books, two of which were made into films, I got to love many characters, and in the course of the series they all die.  Most of the deaths, like death in life, were surprises, and some were gut wrenching to me as the reader.

The peak of the whole series is Duane’s Depressed, when Duane is 62.  Like The Last Picture Show, I hope Duane’s Depressed has more of McMurtry in it because its emotions are more real.

The last two novels, When the Light Goes and Rhino Ranch, are slight, and follow many drifting years for Duane.  They are more intentionally comic, if not farcical.  The chapters become shorter and shorter until they are tiny scenes in Duane’s life, but they cover Duane’s late sixties and early seventies, a time of little activity in a man’s life, although those books should have been longer and more philosophical.

One thing I found amazing is how much America changes in these books.  We start out in Thalia, around 1951, the year I was born.  There are no cell phones, no computers, no Internet, no computer games, etc.  They do have television, but most people seem to ignore it.  Sonny and Duane play football for a school that seldom sees any wins, and they both dream of scoring with Jacy, their high school beauty queen.  Both have jobs, and Sonny has a mentor, Sam the Lion, plus Sonny has an affair with the high school coach’s wife.  But nothing I can say about the story conveys the full cast of vivid characters and all of their lonely lives.  You have to immerse yourself in the novel for that.  I’ve talk to many people who found it depressing, but I found the story uplifting.

Texasville jumps ahead in Duane’s life to his forties, after he’s married Karla, has four kids and a couple grandchildren.  He’s twelve million dollars in debt during a bust cycle of oil prices.  Jacy Farrow comes home at the same time Duane and Karla are having marriage problems, but Jacy steals Karla, his kids, his grandchildren, and even his dog from Duane.  Duane fails to communicate with his family even though he loves them.  Texasville is a riot of crazy characters, and Duane’s four children are every parent’s complete set of parenthood nightmares.

Texasville is about Duane’s failure to communicate with women.  His wife and several girlfriends read him like a book, knowing his every move, emotion and desire, but he is clueless, indecisive and the only words he can find for each women are the exact words that piss them off.

Evidently Duane never catches up with the women because in Duane’s Depressed, when he’s 62, walks away from his family.  Literally.  He parks his pickup, hides the keys, and walks away from a house with a wife, a cook, four children and nine grandchildren.  Duane is not educated enough to know who Thoreau was, or to know about Walden’s Pond, but he goes off to live in a small cabin.  Some people do point out he’s choosing to live a Thoreau like existence and he eventually finds a copy of the book, but he only reads a few lines about living deliberately.  Which he does.

Duane’s Depressed is about finding peace living alone, and Duane goes to a psychologist.  This is my favorite of the five books.  I’ll turn 59 in a few months, and that feels very close to 62.  McMurtry was just a little bit older than that when he wrote the novel, so I consider it my tour guide for my sixties.  Even though I write about almost anything I want in my blog there are topics I’m afraid to talk about.  Some of those topics are ones that Honor Carmichael gets Duane to discover.

I wished Larry McMurtry had written other books for this series.  I’d like at least one more book, if not two, from Sonny Crawford’s point of view.  Jacy deserves a book too, and I think Karla deserves three.  Ruth Popper definitely deserves a book.  And Jenny Marlow too.  And Lois Farrow.

JWH – 8/9/10